“At any given time, the average American maintains between 30 and 50 online accounts. These may be with banks, financial institutions, utility companies, email providers, social media outlets, commercial shopping or travel sites and accounts unique to technology, such as an account to purchase apps for a smartphone.”
Most of us don’t even realize just how much of our life is lived online, from streaming services and banking to apps to monitor our front door. All of these online accounts are digital assets and need to be included in estate plans says a recent article, “Estate planning and online accounts,” from American Legion.
Start by making a complete list of all of your online accounts, together with information about each account. Your list should include username, password, account number and a description of what each account includes. If you change passwords frequently, as recommended by cybersecurity experts, you’ll need to update your inventory every time.
Digital assets fall into four major types: personal, business, financial and social media. Personal accounts including emails, photos, videos, music and apps used on smart phones or tablets. This information is typically backed up on a computer hard drive or cloud-based storage account.
Financial assets include savings and checking accounts, retirement accounts, investment accounts, utility accounts and shopping and frequent flyer accounts. If you do banking or investing online, or if you own cryptocurrency, you’ll want to include these accounts.
Business related accounts include intellectual property, websites or blogs, written work, photos, videos, musical compositions and software. If your side gig includes selling items on eBay or Esty or similar websites, this information also needs to be included in your digital asset inventory.
Social media accounts include well-known platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and any other platform where you are actively engaged. Gaming sites, e-sports and gambling sites should also be included.
Storage and protection is the second part of a digital estate plan. This involves saving the list and backing up important files and account information. The inventory itself needs to be secured, as it could easily be used to access your identity and steal your entire online life. The inventory can be as simple as a list on a pad of paper, stored in a secure location. If it is stored in a digital manner, make sure it is encrypted. There are programs to store and encrypt passwords. However, they are only as good as the software used to create them.
Saving the information on a desktop, laptop or tablet is risky, since these devices are hacked and contents are compromised fairly often. An external thumb drive might work. However, what if it was lost?
Select a digital executor and discuss your digital assets with them. Many states have now passed laws governing digital assets. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn if yours is among them. On some platforms, the executor needs to have been named in advance as a legacy contact before they are legally permitted to access the digital asset. In many cases, having the user’s name and password doesn’t give the executor a legal right to access the accounts according to the Terms of Service Agreement (TOSA) between the user and the platform.
Your estate plan should include a letter of instruction to the digital executor to tell them specifically what you wish to happen to your online accounts and digital assets. It should include recommendations for the distribution of various accounts, assets, files and information to heirs. It may be needed to prove your wishes or directives for digital assets, if there should be a challenge to the executor.
Digital estate planning is a new and changing area of the law. Making provisions for your digital estate will make it possible for your executor to protect your digital assets, as much as a traditional estate plan protects traditional, tangible property.
Reference: American Legion (Dec. 13, 2022) “Estate planning and online accounts”
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