No Digital Estate Planning? Go Google Yourself!

February 11, 2012
Idcard No Digital Estate Planning? Go Google Yourself!

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Have you ever Googled yourself?  Did you find any fascinating careers and/or hobbies that your same-named friends have undertaken?  It is amazing and a bit scary how much one kind find through this three-second exercise.

Searching My Own Name

I entered my first and last name in quotes earlier today and found the following information:

  • There are over 45,000 results.
  • There are approximately 50 listings nationwide with my name.  Several of these are separate listings for each of my addresses during adulthood, some of which generously add a few years to my age.
  • I am “possibly related” to my wife.
  • There are 6 U.S. attorneys with my name, including 1 other that shares my middle name as well.
  • Other professions of my namesakes include doctor, business executive, small business owner, counselor, reporter, and teacher.
  • One person with my name has recently self-published a fiction novel.
  • Another has an FCC amateur radio license.
  • One was arrested in Florida last year.
  • Another found his father stabbed to death by his mother last year.
  • One is a death and heavy metal aficionado.
  • Yet another looks eerily like my father did in the 1960s.

Digital Asset Planning

My name search also led me to an article written by Professor Gerry W. Beyer of Texas Tech (author of the outstanding Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog) and Kerri W. Griffin, also from Texas Tech, entitled “Estate Planning for Digital Assets”, which can be found in the July 2011 issue of Estate Planning Studies (a hearty thank you to both authors, who cited one of my posts in the footnotes).

The article discusses several aspects of digital estate planning, such as its importance, planning techniques, the consequences of not planning, and obstacles.

Interestingly, several of the reasons why the authors believe that it is important to plan for digital assets include:

  1. To Make Things Easier on Executors and Family Members – the authors liken our lifetime build-up of differing online accounts, user-names and passwords to the habits of folks described on the A&E show Hoarders.
  2. To Prevent Identity Theft – we paint a target on our estates if we don’t specifically plan for our online data.  Fairly common criminal activities these days include using a recently-deceased person’s name to open credit card accounts, obtain state ID cards and even apply for jobs.
  3. To Prepare for an Increasingly Information-Drenched Culture.

Given these concerns, it does not take brain science or rocket surgery to see how the vast amounts of information found in a simple search could produce a great deal of havoc.

Search Engines and Digital Estates

Now, let’s say that I do not have any sort of inventory of passwords or data available, and I don’t provide any specific instructions about any of my digital assets in my will or trust (or I lack an estate plan at all).  Extrapolating from the results cited above in the search for my name, the following “tips of the iceberg” could occur upon my death:

  • My personal representative (“PR”) or other interested parties (i.e. creditors) will have one heck of a time finding all of my accounts, data and other digital assets.
  • As the online distinction between me and others with my name becomes even blurrier, my PR or creditors will have greater trouble determining who exactly I was.
  • If my PR is not web savvy, he or she may have difficulty obtaining data from my accounts and paying ongoing expenses related to my business.
  • If my PR simply ignores my online presence, spam will likely increase exponentially over time, as could the risk of someone attempting to use my name for illegal purposes.
  • Some over-eager creditors or criminals could use some of the information gleaned above to attack my estate or the affairs of others with my name.
    • Example:  What kind of chaos could the one who looks like my dad cause my estate if he were adopted, of criminal intent, etc.?
  • If my PR doesn’t take steps to continue or sell this very website, the millions of dollars of its value, the brilliance of its content, and heck, the strong positive impact on society as a whole could disappear in an instant once my domain name expired.

Think About It

Certainly breeding and education has taught me to think in terms of worst-case scenarios.  On the other hand, is it outrageous to think of the potential difficulties that could result from just one mistake or misinterpretation of one’s online information?

Have you Googled your name lately?

 No Digital Estate Planning? Go Google Yourself!
 No Digital Estate Planning? Go Google Yourself!

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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