Estate Planning in the Digital Age

Web Admin - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

digital assets estate planningFrom bankbooks to Facebook, more and more activities, both business and pleasure, are being conducted over the internet every day. A study from McAfee reports that in 2011 the average American had almost $55,000 in digital assets. These assets can present unique challenges during the estate planning process. They need to be passed on or wound up just like physical assets, but each online service has its own rules on handling accounts after death.  

What Digital Assets Are

Digital assets can be many different things, and it is important to have a clear understanding of the different types since they can require very different treatment after death. Digital assets include:

  • - Files on your home computer like pictures, word documents, and spreadsheets;
  • - Digital books and music like iTunes and Kindle books;
  • - Social networking accounts like Facebook and Twitter;
  • - Online gaming accounts and valuable in-game assets;
  • - Websites or domain names you own; and
  • - eCommerce information like bank accounts, Paypal, and eBay.

Choosing how to handle each of these assets can require some careful thought because they will each likely need a different form of treatment. For instance, Paypal accounts can probably simply be closed out after withdrawing the funds, but some people would prefer to see their Facebook page memorialized rather than simply closed.

Handling Digital Assets

From a legal standpoint, handling digital assets may be a challenge because the problem is somewhat new. This means that the law has yet to catch up to the technology in many ways. Instead, much of the legal landscape is determined by the individual service itself based on the “Terms of Service” that they have each user agree to. However, there are still precautions that you can take in order to better empower your loved ones to carry out your wishes.

The first thing to do is to create a digital inventory. This is a list of all your digital assets, where to find them, and the usernames and passwords necessary to access them. This inventory should also include instructions to the executor of your estate detailing what you would like them to do with each of the assets.

Then you should make sure that your legal documents include provisions for the management of your digital assets. This means designating an executor to handle your digital estate. This can be the same person as the executor for the rest of your will, but it does not have to be. If the executor for most of your estate lacks computer skills it could be prudent to name someone else to deal with digital assets. While this executor may still have trouble carrying out all your wishes if the website’s Terms of Service will not allow it, arming them with a digital inventory and a legal document can certainly improve their chances.

If you would like to make an estate plan or if you want to update your plan to account for digital assets, contact an Illinois estate planning attorney today. Our skilled team assists clients across the northwest suburbs, including in Inverness, Kenilworth, and Riverwoods.

About the Author: Attorney Jay Andrew is a founding partner of Drost, Gilbert, Andrew & Apicella, LLC. He is a graduate of the University of Dayton School of Law and has been practicing in estate planning, probate, trust administration, real estate law, residential/commercial leasing, contracts, and civil litigation. Since 2005, Jay has been a Chair of the Mock Trial Committee for the Annual Northwest Suburban Bar Association High School Mock Trial Invitation which serves over 240 local Illinois students each year.

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