4 Steps to Take Today to Preserve Your Digital Assets

February 14, 2011
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Today, we will continue our discussion of digital estate planning by talking about some direct steps you can take to protect your “digital assets” after your death. The overall goal is to protect the existence of your documents, pictures, emails, etc., and to prevent sites from destroying them before your digital executor can get to them.

For this post, I borrowed some ideas shared by WI attorney Nathan Dosch’s Digital Estate Planning website, as well as the book “Your Digital Afterlife”, by Evan Carroll and John Romano (along with their companion website, thedigitalbeyond.com). Do check out these excellent resources for further information.

1. Make a List of Your Digital Assets

Once you consider all of your email accounts, websites, harddrives, important Word and Excel documents, online accounts, social media accounts, etc., this can be a daunting task.

List Assets by Category – To simplify, Dosch suggests that you break your assets down into several categories. Doing so will help you thoroughly identify sentimental (or even profitable) items in your digital estate. Here is a suggested breakdown, with some examples:

  • Hardware – computers, harddrives, backup DVDs and CDs
  • Software – Word and Excel documents, financial data from Quicken or Quickbooks
  • Email Accounts
  • Social Media Accounts
  • Online Storage – accounts such as mozy or carbonite, as well as online photo or document storage sites such as flickr, picasa, or dropbox
  • Online Accounts – eBay, amazon, GoDaddy (for your own website or blog), as well as online bank or financial accounts.

List Account Information – Next to each account or item you listed, write your usernames and passwords, as well as the site’s domain name.

2. List Your Wishes For Each Asset

Your options are not limited to shutting down the account or doing nothing. In fact, Carroll & Romano refer to some of the following additional choices:

  • Archiving contents on CD or DVD
  • Enabling others to share the account
  • Creating an auto-response (informing the sender of death and indicating where to forward information)
  • Forwarding all messages to another place
  • Memorializing the Account (Facebook offers an option where the content of your account can be kept open so that others can review it after you are gone)
  • Leaving the asset directly to heirs (mainly used for bank account options)

3. Choose Person or Entity Who Will Receive Each Asset

Discuss your decisions for each asset with your family or intended recipient, and be sure that the people you choose to implement your wishes are at least somewhat technologically literate.

4. Provide Access and Control

Your chosen person or entity cannot accomplish what you want without your providing them with a way for them to access and control the asset or account. This entails your leaving detailed instructions about how to get into each one.

An Ethical Dilemma? In this early stage of Digital Asset law, the best advice to help the digital executor preserve documents or pictures could involve violating a terms of service (TOS) agreement.

For example, Yahoo’s terms of service state that your account is non-transferable and no right of survivorship exists – in other words, you lose all rights to the account at death. Yahoo retains the right to terminate and delete your account upon receiving your death certificate. Since Yahoo owns your Flickr and Delicious accounts, the problem could extend to the quick loss of hundreds of your pictures, documents, etc.

Some suggest that your digital executor remove the items from your account after your death but before sending Yahoo a death certificate. While this may countermand the TOS, this would need to be balanced against the importance of preserving such assets. This can also create an ethical problem – can a lawyer even advise a person to breach a TOS?

This moral problem is but one of many issues that will need to be worked out over the next several years in this developing and fascinating area of the law.

 4 Steps to Take Today to Preserve Your Digital Assets
 4 Steps to Take Today to Preserve Your Digital Assets

Scott

Scott R. Zucker, Esq. is the owner of The Zucker Law Firm PLLC, located just outside the Capital Beltway in Annandale, within five miles of the City of Fairfax, the county seat of beautiful Fairfax County, Virginia. The firm focuses mainly on estate planning services for Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania clientele, and seeks to do so in an affordable and approachable way. People interested in learning more can contact Scott by phone or email.

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2 Responses to 4 Steps to Take Today to Preserve Your Digital Assets

  1. February 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Great post, this is certainly an emerging issue in the estate planning world. I’m sure we will see a court case or two over the next few years that will provide further direction in this area. The closest we’ve come in my family is that my oldest daughter has “laid claim” to my collection of vinyl albums (pretty low tech I guess).
    Roger Wohlner recently posted..Three Things to Consider in this Stock Market Rally

    • Scott
      February 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm

      Roger–

      It is interesting that you refer to your vinyl albums. There are inexpensive software programs that help you upload old vinyl albums, video tapes, audio tapes, etc. onto your computer. This small effort will result in yet another item to list in your digital estate plan (although if you do this, your daughter will probably be happy to remind you of her beneficiary status).

      Thanks for the comment!

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