Digital assets as part of your estate plan – caring for your online accounts

Digital Assets – What You Really Need to Know

Have you thought about how your digital assets would be dealt with after your death? It is something which you can easily overlook when you are making a Will. It is easy to think about houses you own, bank accounts and personal property. However, digital assets are often overlooked. This can be a huge mistake with serious consequences. Digital asset estate planning has become an essential part of the process of making a Will.

The age of the internet has brought us many things. Online banking, Facebook, eBay, Instagram, Cloud Computing. These are just a few of the many assets of the digital world which were unheard of not so many years ago. We used to make provision for who would get our photo albums when we died, but now we have potentially hundreds of thousands of files in the cloud. It is a whole different world that we live in now.

Digital assets and your Will

Digital asset estate planning is now relevant for most people making a Will. Your digital legacy will live on way past your death. In theory, your digital assets will live forever. It is vitally important that you consider digital asset estate planning when you are making your Will.

This type of estate planning is very new. It is an untested area of the law, but nevertheless it is something that all of us must plan for. The law is tested on precedent. In other words, we learn from other people’s mistakes. If something is badly drafted and is contested in a court, this is when the judiciary clarifies issues for us. Very few countries have made any legal provisions about digital assets upon death. However, the law of digital asset estate planning is so new that it remains largely untested.

Just because the law is uncertain, this doesn’t mean that you can ignore it. On the contrary, this makes it even more important to decide what should happen to your digital asset upon your death.

What Are Digital Assets?

There is no legally accepted definition of the term “digital asset”. Solicitors and estate planners are used to working with strict definitions. Having no formal definition of digital assets presents a big problem. We know what may be included, but there isn’t a strict definition. The internet changes all the time and new digital assets are created.

Digital assets can include social media accounts, online banking, photographs, code that you have written, websites, email accounts, gaming accounts and domain names. This is not an exhaustive list of digital assets. Just think how many accounts and assets that you have which could fall under this definition?

This difficulty makes it even more important that you think about digital assets when you plan to write your Will. Failure to do so could make things even more difficult for your loved ones. You must think about how digital assets should be dealt with on your incapacity or death.

Why Do You Need to Deal with Your Digital Asset Estate Planning?

Think for a moment about how many online accounts and passwords that you have. What if your relatives had to sort through these on your death or incapacity? Would they have any idea where to find your passwords? The whole point of passwords is that they keep our accounts safe. However, if you were no longer around to manage our own digital assets what would happen?

The practical thing which you should do is to make sure that your executors have access to your passwords after you die. One very famous illustration of the consequences of not dealing with this properly is the case of Leonard Bernstein. When he died in 1990 he left a password protected draft of his memoir entitled Blue Ink. Unfortunately, no one has yet been able to find the password and access his work. His memoir is probably lost forever because no one can break the code.

Leonard Bernstein

What Do You Need to Do?

At the very least you should make an inventory of all your digital assets. Include the passwords and online access codes for everything. You will need to include answers to all security questions as well. Make it as easy as possible for your executors to locate your digital assets. For example, they will need all log in information and any passwords. Think about it as if you know nothing about where any of your digital assets are. Imagine what you would need to tell someone starting from scratch with no knowledge of any of the digital assets you have. It’s a big task, but it is a necessary one.

Don’t include login credentials in your Will

You should not list your digital assets and access information in your Will. You should always keep this information in a separate document. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, your will becomes a public document when you die. Obviously, it is not a good idea to have your digital assets and passwords become public at any time. Also, digital assets tend to change frequently. It would be a lot of work to keep updating a will with this information.

You can make a reference to a separate document which contains these details. However, make sure you do not have them in your actual Will. At LegalWills.co.uk we provide a service designed specifically for this. Our LifeLocker service allows you to document all of your assets, including your digital assets, and then set up keyholders who can access the information when they need it (and not before).

As well as detailing with your digital assets and how to access them, you need to designate what will happen to them. You will probably want your digital executor to delete some accounts. Others you will want to pass onto your family members and beneficiaries.

As the term, digital assets is so broad you will need to think about how you want each individual asset dealt with. You may be happy that your sister has access to your Pinterest account, but not want her to have your bank details. Each digital asset needs considering in your estate plan.

Keeping Digital Assets Secure

However, secrecy is still an issue. Online security is of crucial importance. We are constantly told to keep our passwords secret and to change them regularly. Writing them all down and handing over a list to someone goes against everything that experts tell us about online security. How can you keep your digital assets secure whilst still dealing with your estate planning issues?

Some people choose to use online password managers. This can be an excellent way to manage all your passwords and online access codes. Make sure that if you choose such a service that you research each option thoroughly. You will constantly have to keep them up to date. We recommend once a quarter. If you leave it to do only once a year you will probably find that you have added several new accounts. This could cause problems for your executors if you do not keep your digital asset schedule up to date.

Writing down your passwords

You can also simply write your passwords down and print out a list. This is what many people do. However, we do not recommend this as it is not in any way secure. If you opt to give this list to a family member or your executor, you must make sure that you completely trust them with this information. Do you really want them to have your passwords? Remember that if you give your online banking account details to someone you always run the risk that they may use them. It is unlikely if you give them to a close friend or family member, but you should always be aware of the risk.

Another option is to have them in a separate document, but stored with your will. Again, you would have to be sure that they are stored in a safe place with no public access. This has a risk as nothing is certain to be completely safe. It also has the disadvantage that if you update your passwords you keep having to update the document. It could be costly if you store your Will at a solicitor’s office and you keep needing to change the document. Think carefully about where the best place to store this information is.

Keeping your digital assets safe

You can print out the information, store it on your computer or a USB. You can even use cloud storage. However, you decide to keep the information you must make sure that an up to date version is accessible to your executors.

Another solution may be to have more than one document. You always want to keep things as simple as possible, but with digital asset estate planning you will always have the difficulty of security. The overriding principle is that you need to keep your digital assets safe in your lifetime, whilst making it easy for your beneficiaries in the event of your death. You could have two separate documents which each detail the digital assets. One should contain the account numbers and user names. The second file or document should contain the passwords. You can then keep the details separately to minimize the risk of improper use.

The solution at LegalWills.co.uk

At LegalWills.co.uk we have an Executor Handbook service called MyLifeLocker. It allows you to document key contacts, assets and online accounts.

My LifeLocker

You can then either print the final document and store it with your Will, or you can maintain the document entirely online. The critical part of the service though is the naming of Keyholders with access to the service. You can read more about how it works here.

Executor tools

The Importance of Digital Asset Estate Planning

We cannot overstate just how important it is that you consider and have something in place which deals with your digital asset estate planning. The world of the internet and computer data is only going to expand. Make sure that you consider your digital assets just as you would your house, car, bank account or jewelry.

Up to now you really may not have given a thought to who should control your Facebook account, inherit your collection of domain names or can download your photographs from the Cloud. However, today is the day you really should not just think about it, but do something about it. Protect your digital assets and make it easier for your executors and beneficiaries to deal with them with careful estate planning. They will be very glad that you did.

Tim Hewson

President and CEO at UK Legal Wills
Tim Hewson is one of the founders of LegalWills.co.uk.

He has over 19 years of experience helping people to write their Will and other estate planning documents. He has been interviewed by many of the major news media outlets and has contributed to articles in most leading publications. He has also contributed to a number of financial planning books.

Throughout his career, Tim has written extensively on the subject of Will writing and estate planning.
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