Estate planning for your digital assets
Whatever approach you take, make sure the right person has access to your online world should you die.
This post comes from Rob Berger at partner blog The Dough Roller.
I learned this firsthand while handling my stepmother's estate. Apart from who would run this blog in my absence, I'd never really given any thought to how my wife or children would access my online life. And then I obtained a four-page, single-spaced list of my stepmother's online accounts, usernames and passwords.
Talk about an eye-opener (and the fact that she subscribed to the magazine Garden & Gun brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye). It hit me just how much of our lives are online.
And I also realized just how lost my wife would be if I didn't do some basic planning to help her handle these digital assets.
To give you an idea, consider whether any of these categories of online assets apply to you:
- Social media accounts. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and potentially dozens more.
- Email accounts. Many people have multiple email accounts.
- Online banking. Whether your bank exists only online or not, you likely access your accounts online with a username and password.
- Investment accounts. Many people access their 401k, IRA and other investment accounts online. On top of that, I have accounts with Lending Club and Betterment, which are entirely online.
- Other financial products. You may access online everything from your credit cards to cellphone service to a credit monitoring service.
- Rewards programs. My stepmother had frequent-flier reward programs with online access.
- Online entertainment accounts. Netflix and iTunes come to mind.
- The list could certainly be longer. Think eBay, Zappos, Flickr, Pinterest and countless others.
And the list gets even longer for small businesses. So much has moved to the cloud, and many businesses run everything from invoices to accounting online.
If a loved one dies without any records of his or her virtual life, those left behind have at least three matters to deal with.
First, you'll have to identify the deceased's virtual property. This may be easy for things like Facebook and some email accounts. But how will you know if and when you've identified everything? The fact is, you won't.
Second, for those accounts you do identify, you'll have a terrible time trying to get access. For example, try getting the password for a deceased's Facebook account. Good luck!
Third, having certain passwords will make your life much easier as you deal with the estate. I've found that to be true with my stepmother's estate. For example, having her list of online accounts and passwords has helped me identify assets and debts.
There are plenty of news stories about folks dealing with missing passwords. Here's one story from NBC News about a couple who lost a son and then had to do battle with the likes of Facebook and Google to get access to his online accounts. And here's an article from The Wall Street Journal about tips for how a small business should handle its virtual assets.
There's also a great blog called Digital Passing that is worth checking out. Lawyer Jim Lamm of Gray, Plant and Mooty is the editor. I'm not familiar with Lamm or his firm, but I've found his articles on this topic to be thorough and extremely helpful.
How to plan
The simplest solution, in my view, is to keep a list of your online accounts and passwords. The list needs to be kept in a secure place, of course, but it's the easiest way to give your family the information it needs if you pass away. That's what my stepmother did, and it's been a big help.
If you want a more refined solution, however, there are other options. Two options I've found are Legacy Locker and SecureSafe. One great feature about Legacy Locker is that you can assign different beneficiaries to different online assets. For example, you may want to give control of your business virtual assets to a business partner, and your personal online accounts to a spouse.
Note that these services are not free. Legacy Locker does have a free version, but you are limited to three digital assets. Otherwise, it costs either $29.99 a year or a one-time fee of $299.99.
My No. 1 piece of advice in all of this is: Do it now. Whatever approach you take, make sure the right person has access to your online world should you die. And while you're at it, make sure you have the necessary access to your loved ones' digital assets in case the unthinkable happens.
If you've had personal experience with these matter, please share your experiences in the comments below.
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