June 4, 2012   Estate Planning

Estate Planning for Digital Assets and Social Media


Considering how much information we keep on computers and on the internet, estate planning just isn’t complete anymore without including digital assets and social media accounts.

What will happen to these assets when we become disabled or die? Would a family member or administrator know where to find important documents? It wasn’t that long ago that we had only paper records; we could simply point to a file cabinet or drawer and tell someone “everything is in there when the time comes.” But if you scan documents or receive financial statements electronically, someone else may not even know these exist. If you use a program like Quicken or Quickbooks and tax preparation software, those records are on your computer, too.

Do you have a Facebook page, a blog, email accounts? Do you store photos online? Your family would most certainly want to keep these, both for their own memories and, perhaps, for a family legacy. These accounts record our thoughts, our perspectives, our lives in a way that has not been possible before.

Much of the information stored on computers, hard drives and online accounts is password protected. Unless we make arrangements in advance, family members or administrators may not be able to access these and the information will be lost forever.

Estate planning for digital assets and social media accounts is similar to estate planning for other assets. You need to make an inventory of what you have, name someone to step in for you, provide that person with access, and provide some direction for what you want to happen to these assets. Here are some suggestions to help you get started.

1. Make a List of Your Digital Assets and Accounts
Listing these by category will help make the task less daunting. Cleaning up and organizing your desktop and files would be a thoughtful thing to do, too. Categories might include:

  • Hardware: Include computers (laptop, desktop, work computer), hard drives, back-up drives, flash drives, iPods, cell phones and cameras (which might have digital photos stored in them). Include a general overview of where they are located and what is on each one.
  • Software: At the least, this would include Word and Excel documents; Quicken or Quickbooks for financial records; tax preparation programs and past tax returns.
  • Social Media and Online Presence: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube, your own website, your blog, online backup sites, online sites on which you store photos and/or work documents.
  • Online Accounts: Bank and other financial accounts; email accounts; website and blog hosting and registration sites. Amazon, other shopping sites and bills that you pay online may have your credit card or bank information stored on them.

2. Select a Successor
Think about whom you would want to access your computer, your email, and your online accounts in your absence. This person will need to have some computer know-how. It may be the perfect job for the teenager or young adult in your family, or you might have a good friend or even an IT professional who could help. It would be a good idea to talk to this person now and let others know your plans.

3. Provide Access
Next to each account, be sure to list user names, passwords, PIN numbers and the site’s domain name. If you change your password, you’ll need to change it on the list. While we are cautioned to never write these down, it will be necessary for your successor to have them in order to gain access. Keep this list in a safe place (even in a safe deposit box), and tell your successor where it is. (Do not store it unprotected on your computer; if it is stolen, the thief would have all of your passwords. If you store it on your computer, password protect the file and give that information to your successor.)

The person you name as your successor will need a death certificate to close accounts that are no longer needed. Consider naming this person as a co-trustee or co-executor with responsibilities limited to this area to give them legal authority to act for you.

4. Provide Instructions
Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, websites, blogs and email accounts can all be used to notify others of a death. Facebook will “memorialize” a user’s account so that others can view it and write remembrances on the user’s Wall. Email can be configured to send an auto-response informing the sender of a death and where to forward information.

If you want a site to continue, for example if you have a website or blog, you need to leave instructions for keeping it up or having someone take it over and continue it. If a site is currently producing or could produce revenue (e-books, photography, videos, blogs), make sure your successor knows this. If there are things on your computer or hard drive that you want to pass on (scanned family photos, ancestry research, a book you have been writing), put them in a “Do Not Delete” folder and include it on your inventory list.

Closing down accounts that are no longer needed will help to protect your family from identity theft after you are gone. If you want an account to be closed, you may want a copy made and saved first, especially if it contains photos or writings.

Don’t Delay
Yes, it will take some time to think about what you want to happen to your digital assets and to organize this information. But if you don’t do this, your family will not know where to begin and they could miss or lose something valuable. Just like your “other” estate planning, the more you can do now to put things in order, the easier it will be for your family later.

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