Digital estate planning is a crucial step in your estate planning process. In today's world, the array of assets we own spans a much broader spectrum than ever before due to the advancement and proliferation of electronic technology. Fifty years a person might own a personal library of books, a collection of photographs, a shoebox full of personal letters and a banker's box of bank and investment account statements, whereas today a person might instead possess an e-reader, a laptop and smartphone that contains a gallery full of digital images, and apps for email and online banking. With so much of our lives online, it is important, not only to have a plan for these electronic accounts, but to review this plan just as you would review the rest of your estate plan, to ensure that it is properly maintained in an optimal, up-to-date condition.
Many estate planning experts have, for the last several years, been extolling the benefits of digital estate planning. That's because a plan for your digital possessions can offer you huge benefits, including avoiding of the massive hassles that can arise in the absence of a plan. News sources have covered numerous horror stories of people who died without a digital estate plan. Whether it is a bank or an email service provider, many entities have steadfastly refused to grant access to their accounts without the user's username and correct password. This can be true even if the person seeking access is the executor of the estate and has firm proof from a court of his/her appointment to the executor position, as well as proof of the account holder's death.
There are several steps that go into digital estate planning. First, list all of your online accounts, from Pinterest to Instagram to email to online banking. With that list, also record your username and password for each account. Obviously, given the highly sensitive nature of this information, it is essential to make sure that you place this record someplace extremely secure, whether the list is electronic or a hardcopy. Finally, you must make sure that the person whom you have asked to handle your online accounts after you die has all the tools he/she needs to access that information when the time comes.
Digital estate planning, like other aspects of your estate planning, should be reviewed routinely. Just like a “regular” review can help you take stock of changes in your life, such as marriages, divorces, deaths, births, relocations, etc., a review of your digital plan can accomplish a similar task for events in your “electronic” life. Did you change the password on the laptop where you store your list of usernames and passwords and, if yes, did you notify the person who will be handling your online accounts of this new password? Did you switch banks and open a new online banking account? Did you establish a new email account? Did you finally decide to give in and join Twitter? All of these things may trigger a need for you to take some sort of action in keeping your digital planning updated and a review can help you identify these events and target necessary actions.
Another thing a review can do is help you address systemic changes. In a “regular” review, this might mean making adjustments to your plan to address changes in the laws of your state. With a digital plan review, the changes are not necessarily to the law but perhaps to the rules governing your online accounts. As one example, earlier last year, Facebook made a change to allow Facebook users to name someone to be their “Legacy Contact.” Under the newly created Legacy Contact option, you can name another Facebook user to be your contact, and that person, after you die, can add certain information to your Facebook timeline, update your profile picture and respond to friend requests, but cannot compose new posts. A digital plan review can be a worthwhile chance to assess which of your online accounts has created new options like Facebook's “Legacy Contact,” and then take action as needed.