Digital assets – which include text messages, computers, online accounts, files on your phone, or any files stored on the internet that you own, are a legacy of your life, and may be valuable assets. How they are handled following the death of their owner is a rapidly developing area of estate planning law.
Damage and Theft
Earlier this week, a news story out of Virginia recounted the tale of a family who has been barraged by emails from their dead mother’s Yahoo! email account since her passing two years ago. A hacker got into the deceased woman’s account and is using her address book to spam family members and friends. The family tried to get the account closed, but the hacker had already changed passwords and account presets. Yahoo! said they could not close the account until the family produces a death certificate.
Legacy and Reputation
So what can we do to plan for what happens to our digital assets once we’re no longer here? Putting all your digital asset information in your will is not a good idea, since a will becomes public record once it is probated. Plus, making frequent changes to a will every time a new account is added or a password is changed is unwieldy and expensive.
Power and Control
Drafting a separate document that lists all your digital assets in the form of a letter of instruction to your executor or agent is a better idea. You can provide instructions on which accounts should be deleted, which should be passed on, and so forth. This document should be kept with your other estate planning documents, but should probably not be passed on to family members until you’re gone.
Digital Rights Ownership
You may not own the rights to your own information. Google, Facebook, Hotmail, Yahoo, and all emails, all company internet and office files may not be yours. Those companies may allow your relatives limited access. Be aware and be prepared. Look at this Digital Rights Article.
Ownership and the Future
You also have the choice of setting up a revocable trust for your digital assets if you are so inclined, or use the services of an online digital asset afterlife provider that, often for a nominal fee, stores all your digital assets for you and your eventual heirs.