Document Your Digital Assets

Imagine you have a nearly $1 billion empire of music, movies, royalties, real estate, and investments. Sound good? Now imagine you have no will, aren’t in a committed relationship, and the only child you ever had predeceased you. Where and how do you begin to decide what should happen to your holdings? Prince’s untimely death in 2016, and his lack of estate planning, brought to mind that the more we have, the more courage and fortitude is required to decide how to divide it. 

Celebrities’ attorneys, accountants, and financial advisors have to keep up with constant changes to their clients’ holdings, especially when it comes to protecting intellectual property like music, videos, and online material. The longer a celebrity waits to address an ever-growing empire, the harder the decisions are to make and advise on for everyone involved.

While you may not feel as though you have an empire, your online life might be more complicated than you think. Take a few minutes to review what you’ve got and consider how easy, or not, it will be for someone to take over for you.

It’s estimated the average American has between 30 and 80 online accounts with passwords. An attorney I met had a father-in-law who ran 3 businesses from his Blackberry. When he died suddenly in 2011, she was shocked at how difficult it was to access his emails, accounts, and online life. Every online provider had different requirements. This was her introduction to the concept of the “digital asset.”

Keeping track can be overwhelming, but we can begin by naming 4 main types – personal, financial, business, and social:

Digital personal assets:

Photos, Movies, Books, E-books, Music, and Podcasts. Unlike your Simon and Garfunkel records, Michael Jackson CD’s, or Rocky DVDs that the kids will get whether they want them or not, there are some e-libraries you can’t leave to anyone. For example, access to Kindle and iTunes libraries die with their owners.  For all your photos and videos stored in the cloud, make sure you have a backup, especially if it’s iCloud. Upon proof of death, all content in an iCloud account is deleted.

Digital financial assets:

Bank, Brokerage, PayPal, Frequent Flyer, Bitcoin, etc. Did you sign up for paperless statements? Good for you, but make sure you have documented somewhere that the accounts exist. If no one can get into your email, and you haven’t kept good notes or a plan somewhere, they may not know you opened a new Treasury Direct account. (This actually happened in an estate I helped to settle.)

Digital business assets:

Blogs, E-books, Books, E-commerce sites. Intellectual property is often housed digitally. Have you inventoried any copyrighted works and addressed them in your estate planning documents? Can someone get to them in a way that will continue to produce revenue or royalties?

Digital social accounts:

Email, Text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc..  An elderly friend of mine passed away 6 years ago but his face and profile still pop up occasionally as someone “I might know” on my Facebook and LinkedIn. I am guessing his family either aren’t involved with social media, or simply were not able to log in and post a nice memorial tribute to a wonderful man. What do you want your online presence to look like, if at all, and for how long, once you’re gone? 

With all of these different accounts, it seems like you might need a digital asset will and executor. It turns out there are such roles now, and 10 states, including Florida, have ratified them through passage of the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA). (You can read all about it here: https://my.uniformlaws.org/committees/community-home/librarydocuments?communitykey=f7237fc4-74c2-4728-81c6-b39a91ecdf22&tab=librarydocuments). In the act, you can name a digital executor – someone to access your email, text messages, and social media accounts, in your will or trust.

If you have been reading or watching for a while, you know I am a fan of having a Notebook. But if you aren’t the paper Notebook type, or just ready to reduce paper, check out The Beneficiary Book at Amazon, or www.everplans.com. With Everplans, for $75, you can have a plan and inventory of your digital asset estate, easily accessible to those you trust. If you give it a try, let me know how it works out, and I’ll post feedback here for future readers. 

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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