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.
- Digital Assets: Estate Planning for Online Accounts Becoming Essential (Part II) (estateplanninginfoblog.com)
- Digital Assets: Estate Planning for Online Accounts Becoming Essential (Part I) (estateplanninginfoblog.com)
- Bucks: Managing Online Accounts After Death (bucks.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Do Web users fear the digital Reaper? (cnn.com)