For many years, people have understood the importance of having a will in order to protect their assets after death. The advent of the Information Age, however, has generated brand new questions, and the answers are only starting to take shape. How do you protect your digital assets and identity after death?
What Are Digital Assets?
In short, a digital asset is any digitally stored material or an online account owned by an individual. It includes images, photos, videos, downloaded music, tweets, emails, electronic credit card statements, etc.
These files can be stored on a private device such as a computer or tablet or be part of an online account. Since the virtual world is heavily populated, more and more people are leaving a rather large digital footprint when they die.
Why You Should Be Concerned
Laws are still trying to catch up to the fast-paced digital world. The Stored Communications Act of 1986 took a step in prohibiting access to digital information without authorization, but this was mainly directed at Internet service providers. The law could hardly anticipate the ubiquity of email or the plethora of social networks that would spring up in the decades that followed.
According to an Observer article, state law is coming around, but slowly; only nine states allow representative access to social media accounts, and only one state has passed a law that allows representatives to manage them.
Making this landscape even more difficult to navigate is the fact that many sites’ terms of service – the small print that no one reads but everyone agrees to – stipulate that access to another person’s account is strictly prohibited. A few sites do allow an authorized fiduciary to manage or close the email or social networking account of a deceased person.
Protect Your Online Identity
Since the laws are still behind the times and quite vague, estate planning should include provisions for digital assets. In fact, these should be given the same weight and importance as traditional assets. Estate planning documents should name a fiduciary that is authorized to manage digital assets, and the appointee should be given the needed log in, password and account information.
The fiduciary should be periodically provided with a current list of all digital assets, information about changes made to any accounts, and the terms of service for online accounts.
Most people have a more prominent digital profile and more digital assets than they realize. Since so much of your life has a digital presence, and the laws are still trying to catch up, it is important to be proactive and ensure that your online assets and your reputation are protected.
To learn more about developing an estate plan that includes digital assets, contact an estate planning lawyer in your area.