When you sit down and write your will, you’re likely thinking about who should get your house or the heirlooms that have been passed down for three generations. But what about your iTunes collection or Kindle library?
It doesn’t occur to most people to include their online or digital data and accounts. According to Daniel McLennon, advanced planning attorney for Northwestern Mutual, it’s critical that people plan for their digital assets in their estate plans because more of our valuable things are moving to a digital format.
McLennon, for example, stores all his family photos online and included them in his will.
“If you upload things like photos onto an online drive, your family might not know where they are or be able to access them when you die,” McLennon says. “These types of digital assets are extremely important to families, and losing them could be devastating.”
So consider planning for Facebook accounts or cloud services that store files or family photos, as well as things that have a financial value, such as online businesses or Paypal accounts with money in them. Include your email account too, McLennon says, since it often has a functional value to your estate.
“Things like bills or insurance policies are often being sent out via email,” he says. “An executor working to wrap up someone’s final affairs could need access to his or her email in order to close all the accounts.”
It’s critical that people plan for their digital assets in their estate plans because more of our valuable things are moving to a digital format.
KEEP A LIST
Keep track of the digital assets you own and want to pass down.
“Think about what you can access only via a computer or your phone,” says McLennon, “and write all of those accounts down.”
While there are computer programs that keep track of your accounts, the easiest way to do this is to keep a hard copy of the information and to store it with your will. Update your usernames, passwords and answers to security questions regularly so that the information is accurate.
DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO HAPPEN TO YOUR ASSETS
Perhaps you want some accounts deleted. Or maybe you want certain things published or memorialized. Facebook, for example, allows families to memorialize a Facebook page, delete it or leave it active. State your preference in your estate plan.
List whom you want to be given ownership of your accounts and give them and your executor permission to access those accounts. This step is key since the laws around leaving digital assets to your heirs are still in their infancy.
Even if you include your online assets in your will, your estate might still run into problems.
That’s because “many terms of service agreements for things like email accounts don’t allow you to let others access your accounts — let alone allow others to assume ownership of these accounts,” McLennon says. So work with your attorney and read through terms of service agreements for your accounts before creating your will.
Luckily, state law is working to address access issues and is granting executors, trustees and family members the ability to access digital assets if they have permission to in a will. While only a few states have instituted legislation allowing for this, many more states are in the process of drafting new laws. Discuss the best way to plan for digital assets in your state with your attorney.
SPEAK TO YOUR FAMILY
This is important because your heirs might not understand how to access or use the services or accounts you’re leaving them.
“You might do this by speaking to them beforehand,” says McLennon, “or including this information in a letter that your executor gives them.”
Also, since not everyone understands the financial value of assets like domain names or eBay seller accounts, it’s critical that you share the value of your assets with your heirs. If what you own online is extremely valuable, you might also decide to hire financial advisors and experts to help.
“Just knowing that all of your memories, your important information and your correspondence will be left to your heirs is incredibly comforting,” says McLennon.