Keeping Your Digital Assets in Mind When Estate Planning

By July 1, 2019 Blog No Comments


The Internet has changed so much of our lives.  Computers are everywhere. You no longer use a card catalog at the library.  Students are no longer learning cursive, but they’re starting computer classes as early as kindergarten and preschool.  Most people never thought that they’d have a smartphone that would handle their banking, social life, work tasks, and more on such a little screen.  You may not have thought before about what would happen to your online presence when you pass away or become incapacitated, but what would happen to it if you did nothing?

Does your blog just stop?  Will people be able to access your email?  What would happen to your online banking or other financial accounts?  There is a great deal of information that we put online today, and the question about what happens to our digital assets needs to be answered.  You may be thinking to yourself that you don’t have to worry about this since you don’t have a blog and you only do a little online banking, but this is still something you need to think about for your estate planning. 

Passwords

Passwords.  Passwords are often one of the biggest worries when it comes to online accounts.  Without a password, it’s almost impossible to get into an account unless you have some illegal hacking skills.  You may wonder what needs to be done to inform others about the death, shutting down a blog, dealing with online banks that don’t have a brick and mortar presence and more.  Think about how your survivors are going to be able to handle your digital assets today. Do you think they’d be able to handle all of your online presence to your satisfaction?  If you think that they might have problems or will be overwhelmed, you probably should start planning for how to handle your digital assets.  

Basic Concepts

You may think that planning for your digital assets will be different from your real-world assets, but that’s not necessarily the case.  There are some basic concepts to keep in mind. Take a moment to think about your important assets, papers, and information that you have which would be necessary for your beneficiary to have in case something were to happen to you.  You may be thinking that some of your documents are in your bank safe deposit box while your insurance paperwork is located in your home office filing cabinet. Would they be able to find everything they need? They may eventually come across your insurance paperwork clearing out your filing cabinet and may even find something about you having a safe deposit box at the bank.  What happens if they don’t? Assets that would go to them might be lost to your beneficiary because you didn’t take the time to communicate your assets through estate planning.   

The same is true when it comes to your digital assets.  You can do the same thing for digital assets. Would they be able to know all of your different online accounts?  Would they be able to access your computer for your files? Would they even be able to find the files they need online?  Your assets are tied up with your digital footprint, and you need to create some guide that will help them to be able to work with your estate.   

You may be thinking that every article you’ve read about Internet security urges you to not do anything that would help with digital estate planning.  The experts don’t want you to write down your passwords. They want you to change your passwords often. They don’t want you to use the same password for all of your accounts.  They do want you to create strong passwords that can’t be easily guessed. They even tell you to use password generators that create strings of characters that are almost impossible to remember.  You also don’t want to create any online files that contain your account information or financial information in case someone is able to hack your computer or steals it. 

There’s a plan you can implement to help your beneficiaries when it comes time for them to handle your estate that will help you to give them what they will need, but without compromising your current digital security.  

Plan For Managing Your Digital Estate

Since you can’t make it too easy for your information to potentially fall into the hands of identity thieves, you have to go about your digital asset estate planning carefully.  It would be really nice to be able to just write up a list of all of the websites you use to sit next to your desk, files that are important on your computer, and the one password you use, but that just won’t work.  If you find that you’re guilty of any of these computer security sins, you may want to rethink your digital asset strategy.

This plan will cover five different areas that you need to think about with your estate planning when it comes to digital assets.  First, you need to take an inventory. Then, you need to identify a digital asset beneficiary assistant. You need to then create access.  After that, you’ll need to create instructions for your beneficiary. Lastly, you need to create authority.

This may seem overly simplistic for something complicated, but everyone’s situation is different.  You may find that your situation isn’t as difficult as someone with a thriving blog business or it’s more complicated than someone who only has a small digital footprint online.  Customize this plan to fit your needs.  

Take an Inventory

This may sound like a relatively simple part of the plan, but it may not be as simple as you think.  Ever go to sign up for a website, and be told that you previously had an account with the site. Then, you have to go through the process of finding out what your username and password was previously to be able to get into it again.  You may realize as you start doing your inventory that you have more accounts than you realized. Maybe you set up an online account for your retirement account, but hardly ever use it, so it wasn’t on your mind when creating your inventory.  This would be an important account for your beneficiary to find when handling your digital assets.

One way to go about a throughout inventory would be to start listing your accounts that you use on a daily basis that you wouldn’t forget about having an account with, such as your email.  Then, you can go ahead with finding the less used accounts that they might need with your digital assets. It can be helpful to go through your paperwork and email accounts to help you with identifying these accounts.  Old emails and snail mail may help shed some light.

Don’t forget about your computer itself and the other devices that you use to access the Internet.  They may need the pin or password to access them. This can often be forgotten in this process, but shouldn’t be neglected.  They may need to wipe your computers in case you wanted them bequeathed to someone or donated, and this would make the process easier.

Identify Digital Asset Beneficiary Assistant

Your beneficiary may not be as tech savvy as you happen to be, so they may not understand what is going on with your digital assets.  It may be helpful to take the time to identify someone who will be able to assist your beneficiary when it comes to understanding your assets.  This will be the person that your beneficiary will be able to ask questions to and get information from when it comes to your online financial accounts, passwords, computer files, and more.  

This may be a business partner, close friend, or other family member.  It may be a good idea to see if your financial planner or estate planning lawyer handles digital assets.  Considering this is becoming something that is more commonplace in today’s society, more than likely, they will have a good handle on how to deal with digital assets or will be able to refer you to someone that does.    

Create Access

It goes against everything that is said by computer security experts, but it can still be a good idea to keep a record of how to access your accounts, financial and otherwise.  The smart way to go about this is to keep it up to date by updating all of your passwords when you change them often, and keeping this document in another location that is secure.  A bank safe deposit box, with your lawyer, or other secure location that won’t make it easy for a thief to gain access to them in case they were to break into your home or hack your computer.

This makes it possible for them to be able to access your accounts in a timely fashion after your passing, especially if your friends and family that will want to be able to attend your wake and funeral need to be notified online.  Without this information, it’s very possible that they won’t be notified in time and would miss out on something that will only happen once. By playing it safe with finding a secure place, you may not have to worry as much about the list of passwords and pin numbers falling into the wrong hands.

Instructions

You may also want to leave instructions for how to handle your digital assets after you’re no longer able to handle them yourself.  You may be so focused on planning for a funeral with picking out a cemetery, paying for a plot, the design of the grave marker, and more that you don’t want your family to have to worry about when they’re grieving for you.  You may not think about how you want them to handle your online presence.

You’ll probably want to consider if you want them to post notifications to your social media accounts, blogs and email lists.  Instructions will give them the information that they need to help you with this to allow those you want to know to grieve along with them.  If you didn’t find someone to provide assistance to those less than tech savvy as noted earlier, you may want to leave detailed instructions on how they should go about doing this for you.

You should also leave instructions for whether or not your sites should be closed or kept going, and help them by placing a value on your blog and other sites if the best option may be to sell the blog or other digital presence.  You should also note what shouldn’t be deleted from your online presence, and any bequeathing you want done on your behalf.    

Authority

You should look for ways that you can grant the authority to your beneficiary when it comes to your online accounts.  For instance, many of your online bank accounts will give you the option to designate your beneficiary. The same is true for any online accounts you have with your insurance company.  

When it doubt, ask.  Call the customer service number on the website, and see what they have to say about designating a beneficiary and what happens to your account upon your passing.  You might be surprised with how many of these companies have been through this with other clients and are able to better advise you how to work with their policies and procedures.  They may give you valuable information on how to setup your account or instructions you need to add to the previous section when it comes to your account with their company. Still not sure?  Speak with your estate planner or lawyer.

It may seem crazy to be thinking about your digital assets today, but like all of your estate planning, it shouldn’t be put off.  The plan laid out in this article will help you when it comes to matching up your digital assets with your real-world assets. Following it is a good start to getting you on the right track for your estate.

Not sure how to handle your own personal digital assets when it comes to your estate planning?  Speak with your financial planner today to help you with any questions that you might have about this whole process.  It doesn’t have to seem like you’re in this alone.  

About Woven Capital

Aaron Hatch is a Certified Financial Planner and co-founder of Woven Capital, a fee-only financial planning and investment management firm that specializes in helping people balance life, work, and community. Aaron has been quoted in various publications, including The Chicago Tribune, US News and World Report, and the Huffington Post among others. Aaron can be reached at aaron@wovencapital.net