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Life Got Digital, So Must Your Estate Plan!

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Written by: Katie Fischer

In the past two decades, technology has completely changed our lives. The Internet, personal computers, and social media have transformed how we work, play, shop, and communicate. Life has gone digital, and that shift means everyone, young or old, needs a digital estate plan.

Not long ago, it was relatively easy to create an estate plan. You made a list of your assets, identified who you wanted to receive what, and your attorney documented everything to be sure there were no complications later on. Even if you forgot a few things, your heirs could simply wait for bills or statements to arrive in the mail and take it from there. Eventually, everything would work itself out. Those simple days are long gone.

With technology has come complexity. Today, the majority of our assets are stored online. To save paper and time, we bank using an app, pay our bills online, and share our photos on social media. We rely on Google, Dropbox, and iCloud to store everything from emails to personal documents to cherished family photos. And that’s just the beginning. Retail rewards plans. Old, forgotten credit card accounts. Digital video and eBook libraries. Online subscriptions to Amazon, Spotify, Netflix, and more. Our list of digital assets is growing longer every day—and identifying, accessing, and managing those assets after we die is anything but simple.

Welcome to the world of digital estate planning.

The good news is that putting a plan in place today can give your heirs all the information they need to not only access your assets when the time comes, but also protect your estate from identity theft and other threats that can take place if your digital assets are left untended after your death. To get started, just follow these 3 basic steps:

Step 1: Identify your digital assets

Start by building a comprehensive list of your assets and login information. Create a simple spreadsheet that lists each asset, where it’s located, and your login information, including user name or ID and any associated PINs, passphrases, security questions, and multisignature or timelock requirements. Digital assets to keep in mind include:

  • Bank and investment accounts
  • Payment apps (Paypal, Venmo, ApplePay, GoogleWallet)
  • Digital currency (Bitcoin, domain names)
  • Personal accounting tools (QuickBooks, YNAB, Mint)
  • Personal email accounts
  • Social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Shutterfly)
  • Online media subscriptions (newspapers and magazines)
  • Online libraries (movies, eBooks, music)
  • Rewards accounts (airlines, credit cards)
  • Insurance plans (life, health, property)
  • Retail accounts where your payment options are stored (Amazon, eBay)
  • Crowd-sourced review forums (Yelp, TripAdvisor)

Remember that every one of these digital assets is associated with you—either financially or sentimentally. To prevent identity theft, misuse, or loss of assets, it is important to transfer or close every one of your digital accounts as soon as possible after your death.

Related: Life Happens! Make an Emergency Fund Your #1 Goal

Step 2: Review and update your estate plan

Even if your estate plan was created as recently as 5 years ago, it may not include all of your digital assets, so it’s important to review what’s covered. Many people assume digital assets are covered when property is transferred to their heirs after death, but that’s not always the case. The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act allows appointed fiduciaries to access some digital assets (and only in the states where it has been enacted), but the 2015 revision does not give attorneys or executors full access to accounts unless you have given them that access in a legal document. That means that while your heirs may be able to gain access to your bank accounts, your texts, emails, and social media accounts could potentially be lost forever. Once you know what is and isn’t in your current estate plan, it’s time to make the necessary updates. Your plan can state that your fiduciaries are permitted to bypass, reset, or recover your passwords to give them legal access to important financial documents, as well as access and manage social media accounts. It’s unlikely you’ll want to include every digital asset in your estate plan, but while your spouse may know your passwords, technically, accessing your accounts without written permission is considered illegal hacking. It’s unlikely anyone would challenge access to those old wedding photos you have stored on Shutterfly, but stating who you want to receive your Bitcoin and even your transferrable airline miles or credit card rewards is more important. If you have any doubt about what to include in your legally binding estate plan, talk to your financial advisor or estate planning attorney.

Step 3: Make a plan for other assets

For less sensitive assets, consider simply using an online password manager to keep everything up to date and easily accessible by your spouse or heirs. Most of these products allow you to organize passwords, keep them secure, and name an executor of your accounts in the event that something happens to you. Facebook, Google, and many other platforms offer a “trusted person” designation that allows you to give someone legal access to your account in case of death, and some settings will even send an alert to your designated person if your account is unused for a period of time. Be careful though: every agreement is different, so be sure you understand what access you are granting and when.

According to a recent AARP survey, 60% of Americans don’t have an estate plan of any kind, much less a digital estate plan. Don’t be part of that statistic! A carefully created estate plan that includes your digital and other assets can make a world of a difference for your heirs after you’re gone. By taking a small amount of your time now to plan for the future, you can be sure to leave happy memories—not estate planning headaches—as your final legacy.

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