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Protecting Your Digital Legacy: Estate Planning for Online Accounts and Digital Assets

— June 21, 2024

Estate plans, including digital estate plans, should be regularly revisited and updated to reflect changes in technology, account policies, and your digital presence.

We shop for groceries online, use telehealth platforms to meet with medical providers, and manage our finances without stepping into a bank.

There’s almost no service that hasn’t gone digital. 

Like most things, estate planning has been swept up in this digital wave—and it’s not just about holding meetings on Zoom or signing a contract with an eSignature. No longer concerned solely with physical assets and financial holdings, attorneys and financial planners are increasingly recommending that clients add a digital estate plan to their wills and trusts. 

It’s a good recommendation, and we’re here to help. Consider this article a roadmap to help you navigate the intricacies of safeguarding your digital legacy by incorporating digital estate planning into your overall strategy. 

What are digital assets?

Digital assets can include everything from email and social media accounts to credit card or bank accounts.  

Each type of digital asset has its own unique value, properties, and risk factors, all of which can present challenges for the family members or loved ones responsible for executing your estate.

Parts of your digital life that should be discussed when planning for your digital assets include:

  • Social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, X, Pinterest, etc.)
  • Personal email accounts (professional accounts usually belong to your employer)
  • Subscription services (entertainment, shopping, security, communication, etc.)
  • Financial assets, including banking, investment, credit card and cryptocurrency accounts 
  • Photo and video storage or sharing accounts
  • Data you’ve uploaded to the cloud from your phone, computer, or tablet
  • Digital intellectual property (websites you maintain, code you’ve written and own, domain names, text or graphic files, etc.)
  • Utilities accounts
  • Loyalty program accounts (frequent flyer miles, shopping rewards, etc.)

The assets your digital estate plan protects are the digital accounts themselves, not the physical assets they contain. For example, your online banking account (the login credentials, etc.) is a digital asset. The liquid funds it represents are physical assets that will be included in your estate and should be covered in your other estate planning documents. 

I already have a will. Do I really need an additional estate plan for digital assets?

If you overlook digital assets in your estate plan, you could lose valuable assets, compromise your privacy, and leave your loved ones grappling with uncertainties. 

Here’s how.

First of all, don’t expect your beneficiaries to be given access to all your online accounts just because you’ve passed away. The current push for increased data privacy means just about everything in your digital life comes with more restrictive terms-of-service agreements. 

Unless the decedent leaves specific instructions for who can access their accounts, their loved ones could lose precious photos, videos, and documents. They could also be blocked from financial accounts. 

Another issue? Unauthorized access can expose your estate to identity theft and fraud concerns after your death. Accounts could potentially be opened in your name or drained before your beneficiaries get access.

Digital estate planning law is still being developed, and it’s clear that it will change as it continues to catch up with the reality of our digital landscape. Every state except Louisiana has passed the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) or its successor, the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). 

These laws were created in an attempt to ensure executors, trustees, or court-appointed conservators are granted complete access to a deceased’s digital assets. 

But even so, individual terms of service and privacy policies can make getting to those assets difficult. A digital estate plan can help your loved ones preserve precious digital memories, access the gifts you intended to give them and avoid having to deal with fraud associated with your estate.

How do I create an inclusive digital estate plan?

As overwhelming as all this might sound, creating a fully inclusive digital estate plan is easier if you take it one step at a time—and with a legal professional by your side.

Take inventory of all your digital assets

The first step in the digital estate planning process is a comprehensive inventory of your digital assets. Include a list of accounts, login credentials, and any necessary instructions for accessing these accounts. You may want to consider using password management software to help you keep everything organized.

After identifying your digital assets, back up as many as possible to the cloud. This ensures that your beneficiaries will still have access to your digital assets even if they don’t have the laptop, phone, tablet, or camera that created them.

Specify your wishes

Couple doing estate planning; image by Ketut Subiyanto, via
Couple doing estate planning; image by Ketut Subiyanto, via

Once you know what your digital assets are, you need to clearly articulate your preferences for each digital account. 

For example, do you want your Facebook or Instagram account deleted, or do you want it to remain as a memorial account? Do you want your email account closed? Who do you want to have access to your photos and videos? Do you want to give someone control over digital assets like a website or online store that generates revenue? 

Providing explicit instructions helps guide your digital executor. An estate planning attorney can help you understand the fullest scope of your options, as well as the next steps.

Name a digital executor

Designate someone you trust as your digital executor. They will be responsible for carrying out your wishes regarding your online presence and digital assets. This person should be aware of your digital estate plan, have access to your inventory, and possess the technical know-how to manage digital assets. 

Store your digital estate plan somewhere safe (more than one place is a good idea), and make sure your executor has a chance to read it and ask questions.

Just as you don’t have to choose a friend or family member as the executor of your physical estate, you don’t have to choose them to execute your digital estate either. Discuss your options with your estate planning attorney; they may be able to recommend professional services or even act in that capacity for you. 

Ensure all digital estate plan requests are legal and secure

A knowledgeable lawyer will help you make sure your legal documents are thorough and, well, legal. 

They will also help ensure your information remains private and secure. Wills are part of the public record, and that’s a bad plan for the password to your retirement accounts. A good attorney can help you craft a strategy that simplifies things for your digital executor without compromising your privacy.

Review and update annually

Estate plans, including digital estate plans, should be regularly revisited and updated to reflect changes in technology, account policies, and your digital presence. This ensures that your plan remains current and effective.

Planning to protect your digital legacy

If you’ve already meticulously planned the distribution of your physical assets in the form of a last will and testament, that’s great… but don’t forget the digital side of things. Our modern digital life demands the same attention to detail for your digital assets. 

Digital estate planning is a proactive step toward securing your digital footprint and facilitating a seamless transition for those who will inherit your digital legacy.

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