While we’re enjoying the fruits of digital life—our eBooks, movies, email accounts, social media profiles, eBay stores, photos, online games, and more—there will come a time we should ask ourselves, What happens to all of this good stuff when I die?
Like anything else we own, those things can be passed along through our estates too.
With the explosion of digital media, commerce, and even digital currency too, there’s a very good chance you have thousands of dollars of digital assets in your possession. For example, we can look at research we conducted in 2011 which found that people placed an average value of $37,438 on the digital assets they owned at the time. Now, with the growth of streaming services, digital currency, cloud storage, and more in the past ten years, that figure feels conservative.
Enter the notion of a digital legacy, the way you can catalog and prepare your digital assets for passing through your estate.
Getting started with estate planning for your digital assets
Like so many aspects of digital life nowadays, estate planning law has started to catch up to the realities that attorneys, executors, and heirs face when dealing with an estate and its digital assets. In the U.S., new laws are rolling out that address how digital assets are treated when the owner passes away. For example, they give fiduciaries (like an estate executor, trustee, or an agent under a power of attorney) the right to manage a person’s digital assets if they already have the right to manage a person’s tangible assets. Such laws continue to evolve, and they can vary from state to state here in the U.S.
With that in mind, nothing offered in this article is legal advice, nor should it be construed as such. For legal advice, you can and should turn to your estate attorney for counsel on the best approach for you and the laws in your area. However, consider this article as a sort of checklist that can help you with your estate planning.
My hope is that this article will open your eyes to the digital value you have to pass along, both real and sentimental, and help you prepare your estate accordingly for the ones you care about.
What are digital assets in a will?
The best answer you can get to this question will come from your legal counsel. However, for purposes of discussion, a digital asset is any text or media in digital form that has value and offers the bearer with the right to use it.
To frame it up in everyday terms, let’s look at some real-world examples of digital assets that quickly come to mind. They include but are not limited to:
- Photo libraries
- eBook libraries
- Digital movies
- Digital music
- Digital currency, such as bitcoin
- Air miles
- Hotel points
However, digital assets can readily expand to further include:
- Subscriptions to streaming services and online publications
- Online game accounts—and in-game items associated with them
- Currency stored in online payment platforms
- Online storefronts, such as eBay, Etsy, or business websites
- Website domain names, whether in use or held speculatively for later resale
- Documents kept in cloud storage, like financial documents and ancestry research
And as far as your estate is concerned, you can also consider:
- Online banking and financial accounts
- Email accounts
- Chatrooms and message boards for your interests and hobbies
- Medical and insurance accounts
- Utility accounts
- And any other similar accounts that may help your executor manage your estate
That’s quite the list, and it’s not entirely comprehensive, either.
Start with an inventory of your digital assets
The process of lining up your digital assets begins just like any other aspect of estate planning, by listing all the digital assets and accounts you own. From there, you can see what you have and what you’d like to distribute—and what you can distribute. In fact, when it comes to digital, there are some things you simply can’t pass along. Let’s take a closer look.
What digital assets can you pass along through your will?
Generally speaking, digital assets that you own can be passed along. “Own” is the operative word here. Many digital things we have are in fact licensed to us, which are not transferrable. More on that next, yet examples of things you can likely transfer include:
- Funds kept in an online payment account like PayPal or Venmo.
- Funds due to you via an online store you maintain.
- Cryptocurrency, like bitcoin.
- Digital music that you’ve purchased and own.
Check with your legal counsel to ensure you’re following the letter of the law in your region, and also look into any licensing agreements you may have for items like internet domain names and airline miles that you may hold to determine if they are in fact transferrable.
What digital assets are non-transferrable through your will?
This is an important topic. As mentioned above, some accounts you hold are simply licensed to you and you alone. Thus, they will not transfer. Two of the biggest examples are social media and email accounts. This can have serious repercussions if you do not leave specific instructions as to how those accounts should be handled after your passing.
For example, do you want your social media profiles to remain online as a memorial or do you want them simply to shut down? Note that different social media platforms have different policies for handling the accounts of users who have passed away. For example, Facebook allows for creating memorialized accounts that allow friends and families to continue sharing memories. Policies vary, so check with your social media platforms of choice for specifics.
Likewise, will your executor need access to your email account to handle affairs of the estate? And what about access to online accounts for paying bills and then ultimately closing those accounts? In all, these are points of discussion to have with an experienced estate attorney who knows the law in your region.
Other things to be aware of are that subscriptions to streaming accounts are likely non-transferrable as well. Often, eBooks and digital publications you own are only licensed to you as the sole owner and can’t be transferred. Again, check the agreements associated with items like these and have a talk with your attorney about them to determine what can and can’t be done with them.
Blogs and online communities
Another aspect of your digital legacy is your voice. If you’re a blogger or a participant in an online community, you may wish for a fiduciary or family member to leave a farewell post. Additionally, in the case of a blog, you may want to set up some means for your work to stay online or get archived in some manner. Again, you can work with your attorney to leave specific instructions as to what should be said and then what should be done with the blog or site in question.
Giving your executor access to your digital assets
One way you can avoid heartbreak like this is to discuss giving your executor access to your accounts. This can be provided through a list of accounts, usernames, and passwords that are kept in a sealed letter along with your will, along with instructions that outline your wishes. This is important: a will is public record after you pass away. You won’t want info like usernames and passwords getting out there. Again, you can discuss an option such as this with your attorney.
Protecting your digital assets
One thing you can do today that can protect your digital assets for the long haul is to use comprehensive security protection. Far more than just antivirus, comprehensive security can store precious and important files securely with encryption, arm all your online accounts with strong passwords, and protect your identity as well. Features like these will help you see to it that your digital legacy is secure.
Make a plan
When I’ve brought up the idea of a digital legacy with friends, a light goes on in their head. “Of course, that makes a lot of sense.” It’s easy to take our digital possessions somewhat for granted, perhaps in a way that we simply don’t with our physical possessions. Yet as you can see, there’s a good chance that you indeed have a digital legacy to pass along. By getting organized now, you can see to it that your wishes are followed, and I hope this checklist helps you get started.