Estate Planning in a Digital Era

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Email. Social media. Online photo albums. These days, many educators are storing information online. But what happens to your digital footprint if you pass away?

If you want control over what happens to your data, you need a strategy for sharing, deleting or allowing loved ones access to your digital assets.

For starters, do you:

  • Have one or more email accounts?
  • Connect with friends on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter?
  • Upload photos to photo-sharing sites like Flickr® or Snapfish?
  • Buy/sell stuff on eBay® or complete transactions with PayPalTM?
  • Publish a website or blog?
  • Use web-based budgeting and personal finance software like FinanceWorksTM or Mint.com?
  • File your taxes online?
  • Have a stockpile of photos, music, videos, e-books, etc. stored on your password-protected mobile device, computer or server?

If you're nodding yes, then it's time to consider how these assets should be managed after you're gone. Do you want your Facebook account to live on as a memorial page or be deleted? Do you want family to have access to a record of your emails? Do you want to share your photos and videos with your heirs? What other accounts should be deleted or maintained? Will your heirs need access to your financial or tax records online?

Digital components are a challenge for estate planning. There are legal issues related to intellectual property ownership, and every site has a different policy for sharing and transferring information. For example, a death certificate is required to terminate a deceased account holder's Yahoo email account. Survivors must also get a court order to access a record of emails. These and other rules are designed to protect users' privacy, but the process can be frustrating for heirs.

Inventory of Digital Assets

Take stock of your online activities and consider what has sentimental or financial value. With this information, you can write a plan specifying what you want and who will be responsible to carry out your wishes.

Begin by creating an inventory that maps out where to find important files on laptops, desktops, external hard drives, USB flash drives, etc. Next, list your online accounts, websites or blogs, including the domain name (URL) and your username and password for each. Remember that the list is only useful if you update it as you create new accounts and change passwords. Websites such as LegacyLocker.com and Entrustet.com provide a free service (and upgrades for a fee) for creating a digital assets inventory, updating and storing it securely online.

Finally, designate who will be responsible for managing or deleting each digital asset on the list, and talk to your loved ones about your wishes. Your directions alone are not legally binding, but you may choose to incorporate the inventory into your will or estate plan. In the body of a will or trust, you may designate a beneficiary for digital assets or name a "digital executor."

While making plans and squaring away digital assets, it's a good time to also update your will and other estate planning documents. Schedule an appointment with an estate planning professional or talk with your attorney.

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