Do you even know what your digital assets are? In our technology saturated and social media savvy world, many of us have several social media accounts that are stored entirely on the Internet. What happens to these when we die and why should we care?
Discussions about death don’t need to be negative. It is the inevitable demise for all of us and yet we often steer clear of discussions about death and preparing well for it. Good estate planning has many facets and planning what happens to your digital assets is part of that good planning.
Joanna Shears believes that her digital assets are her most valuable assets both in monetary and sentimental value. She is also someone who is quite death aware. At 34, Shears is an accomplished artist and taxidermist. Sometimes, she marries her interests in elaborate video installations that are meditations on how our lives end. She maintains a blog, The Winding Sheet, where she discusses funerals, cemeteries and “death positivity,” the idea that improving your outlook on the inevitable might help you enjoy the present.
Created Life After Death
Taxidermy is not a hobby or career choice for everyone, but what many people don’t realise is that taxidermy is more about life than it is about death. An Australian taxidermist, Natalie Delaney-John says that “. . .taxidermy is an art of recreation.” Much of what we leave behind on social media is created content, whether it be our thoughts, photos, music or other interactions with the world. It is also a reflection of our life – not our death.
Given her preoccupation, it’s no surprise Shears has begun thinking about her own demise. Three years ago, Shears stumbled across DeadSocial, an online service for managing the digital afterlife and sending messages to loved ones. The service, she thought, was the smartest way she could organise her roughly 50 web accounts and thousands of digital photos.
If Shears thinks about how she’d like to leave her most prized asset, her photos, she should make her intentions clear in her will. This might include how to access and organise those photos, and what she’d like done with them after her death.
Brandwatch has some interesting statistics on its website about social media users. There are 2.3 billion active social media users in a worldwide population of 7.3 billion. Internet users have an average of 5.54 social media accounts each. That’s social media accounts like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube just to name a few. Many of us also have several email accounts and then there are more ‘specialised’ accounts for gaming, music creation, blogs and so on as well as the more mundane for banking or Centrelink.
CNET is an American media website that publishes reviews, news, articles, blogs, podcasts and videos on technology and consumer electronics globally. One of its reporters, Erin Carson, says, “The internet has turned the paper trail into virtual confetti.” Whereas once upon a time your executor or relatives might fairly easily find many of your important documents and memories in your home after you’re deceased, our new way of existing means that much of our stuff is not as accessible to our loved ones if we have not prepared for our departure. In fact, many of us struggle to remember our own passwords, let alone try to guess at someone else’s!
Although it may not be hard to find someone’s social media account, accessing it is another thing altogether. To access someone’s account legally you will need passwords and even then, some accounts cannot be accessed by anyone other than the holder.
The proliferation of accounts isn’t necessarily a problem. The problem is that many of us actually don’t have a will yet and a standard will isn’t likely to cover digital property.
“We’re in for a tidal wave,” said Karin Prangley, a wealth manager at Brown Brothers Harriman who specializes in estate planning. As millennials age and start dying, it’s going to create a nightmare for their executors, who are legally responsible for settling their affairs. “It’s not like ‘oh, I’ll give it my best shot’ and you hang up the towel and say ‘I hope I got everything,'” Prangley said.
Protecting Your Digital Assets and Your Family
The law hasn’t quite caught up with our digital age yet. Different companies such as Google and Microsoft all have different policies. In the US, Jim Lamm, a third-generation estate planner and a colleague co-authored the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which would harmonize US state and federal privacy laws. About half the states have adopted a revised version. Lamm says the laws are so new, it’s too early to tell the effect. Accessing your accounts could potentially be a nightmare for your loved ones.
It’s not just to protect your family from lost memories or other valuable material that you need to pass on your digital assets well, cyber-fraud and identity theft are other reasons you need to have your accounts also put to rest when you are gone. Accounts that sit dormant or don’t have a watchful eye on them are vulnerable to those with intent to steal and the right know-how.
Include Your Digital Assets in Your Will
A digital estate assets plan, sometimes also referred to as a digital estate inventory, is a list of all of the digital or online assets that a person uses. Including something like this in your will makes it much easier for your family to access these assets when you die. “Increasingly people are thinking of this and making an inventory,” says Kathy Wilson, chair of the Law Institute of Victoria’s succession law committee. “But it is interesting how slow most people are, considering how quickly social media is moving. My advice is to keep a record of everything and give it to the executor of the will in a sealed envelope.”
Keep a Record
Keep a list (whether on paper or encrypted on your computer) of all of your login and password details for all of your online accounts. Once you start compiling a list you will be surprised by just how many you have. This list can be included with your will, but the problem is that passwords change so often that it probably won’t be kept up-to-date. Having a physical list or an encrypted version that your executor can access ensures that the information they are given is more likely to be current and helpful. Here is a list of suggested digital accounts you may have:
- social media sites (such as Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat)
- banking and other financial sites (superannuation or share portfolios)
- government services (Medicare and Centrelink)
- phone and internet accounts
- local council services
- shopping sites
- cloud storage
- music such as iTunes
At Estate Battles we can help you to prepare your estate well, including helping you to think about your digital assets. Good estate planning is about considering all of the ‘what if’s’ – something we can help you to do in a thoughtful and comprehensive way. Our estate lawyers offer a free, 10-minute phone consultation. Please contact us today!