Estate assets have typically included real estate, money, heirlooms, and financial accounts. But people now transact much of their business and lives online. Digital assets and passwords to important online accounts should be part of estate planning or assets may be lost forever.
Digital property is like other property because it can be passed on to identified parties in an estate plan. These assets include financial records stored in I-phones, computers, or the cloud. Social media accounts may have mementos such as photographs and video.
Other assets include cryptocurrencies, website domain names, blog content and digital rights to literature, music, motion picture and theatrical works. Assets may also involve online video channels involving monetized content and online gaming avatars.
Gaining access to digital assets and encoded information can present obstacles to anyone who is not their owner. First, passwords may be an insurmountable obstacle for family members if they are not shared with them.
Digitally stored data may be encrypted. This adds more security on top of passwords. Encryption can scramble data in a single file, device or in the cloud. Access is inaccessible without the correct passcodes.
Federal and state criminal laws prohibit unauthorized access to computer systems and private data. Although these laws are constantly changing, access may be denied to family members unless they have authorization.
Federal law generally prevents account providers from turning over electronic communication content to anyone except the account’s owner without their lawful consent. Gaining access to photographs emails and other content may require a potentially costly and uncertain legal fight with the provider.
There are ways to overcome these obstacles. First, make a list of your digital assets including important passwords, email and social media accounts and digital property such as domain names, virtual currency, and money transfer apps. Keep the list in a safe location that is known and accessible to family members.
Place backups of electronically scanned documents such as bank and investment account statements, birth certificates, insurance policies, tax records and estate documents on the cloud. Back these up to a local computer so that family members can access them.
Finally, documents such as wills and powers of attorney should give lawful consent for providers to divulge all or specific electronic communications to authorized people. This should include authority to bypass, reset or recover passwords.
An attorney can help prepare these estate documents. They can also provide other options for your estate plan.