With the recent integration of the digital world into daily life, the consideration of digital assets in estate planning is becoming increasingly important. Individuals are now leaving behind a multitude of digital content when they die, including information stored within social media profiles, emails, blogs, and media files, that can be passed on through a digital estate plan.
For those who spend time creating assets in the digital world, it is important to speak with estate trustees to ensure that it is known what digital assets exist and how they are to be managed after death. With estate planning, it is always a great idea to communicate wishes directly to estate trustees, and digital estate planning is no exception. Alternatively, active steps can be taken to organize digital assets and make arrangements for their transfer or destruction.
With Google's new Inactive Account Manager, individuals with Google accounts can now control how their information will be dealt with after a prolonged period of inactivity. If a user does not log-in for the specified timeframe, of a minimum of three months, content can then be forwarded, with or without a customized message that may include instructions regarding the use of digital assets, or permanently deleted in accordance with the user's wishes.
The Inactive Account Manager program, made available in April 2013, is an important development in digital estate planning for two primary reasons. First, it illustrates that digital assets are being taken seriously by the Internet technology industry in terms of after-life decisions. People are investing more and more time creating a body of work on the Internet, especially through social media profiles. The availability of this new Google feature indicates that digital assets, especially with respect to the younger generation, will be dealt with in a serious manner going forward.
Secondly, the program gets people thinking about estate planning in general. Digital assets are becoming a more important aspect of a person's estate, and warrant serious consideration when it comes to estate planning. As with planning as it relates to other classes of assets, it is important that these assets can pass in a way that has affords a degree of dignity. Programs like the Inactive Account Manager serve as a reminder to get organized with an estate plan that incorporates how digital assets should be managed on death.
Without a digital estate plan, a number of problems can arise. Accounts left open long after death can make the deceased an easy target for identity theft, implicating other non-digital estate assets. Further, automatic online bill payments can continue following death and deplete the assets of the estate. Account information and contents are more obvious components of digital estates, but valuable digital assets and intellectual property, such as rights to domain names, may also be present and remain undiscovered during traditional estate administration absent a digital estate plan. Digital estate planning can allow access to the necessary documents to pass on these assets to the intended beneficiaries.
In addition to communication with your estate trustee regarding digital assets and using programs like Google's Account Inactivity Manager, Legacy Locker, and Estate Map, steps can be taken during one's lifetime to facilitate digital estate management. The creation of a complete list of online accounts and profiles with login information and, if necessary, the appointment of a separate "digital estate trustee" who is technologically capable, may prove helpful in the smooth management and transition of the digital aspects of an estate.
The distribution of certain assets after death, such as e-books and music files, is protected by user agreements. Sites like Google and Facebook may also own some of the information that we choose to share through these platforms. Absent state or provincial law stating otherwise, it is the service agreements with Internet companies that determine the rules for how our digital estates can be managed.
With the ongoing transformation of the digital world, the law relating to digital assets has fallen behind. This presents a significant challenge to digital estate planning. However, with a greater number of tools becoming available to facilitate the transfer of digital assets, digital estate planning is becoming both more relevant and accessible.
Ian Hull and Suzana Popovic-Montag are partners at Hull & Hull LLP, an innovative law firm that practices exclusively in estate, trust and capacity litigation. To watch more Hull & Hull TV episodes, please visit our Hull & Hull TV page.