Planning for Digital Assets as Part of Estate Planning
`Digital Asset Estate Planning

Planning for Digital Assets as Part of Estate Planning

As technology continues to advance and we are increasingly living more of our lives online, it’s time to think about what our digital legacy will be, says The Scotsman in the article The ghost in the machine—what will happen to online you after death?” This is known as digital assets planning. In our increasingly digital world, we’ve shared the news almost immediately when a celebrity dies, grieved when our online friends die and been touched by stories of people online who we have never met in RL — Real Life. Are you digital assets adequately planned for?

Most of us have digital assets and online accounts. It’s time to think about what will happen to them when we die.

Estate planning attorneys are now talking with clients about their digital assets and leaving specific instructions about what to do with these online accounts and social media, after they pass.

There’s a trend of creating video messages to loved ones and posting them online for the family to see after they pass. Facebook has a feature that allows the page owner to set a legacy contact to manage the account, after the account owner has died. Other technologies are emerging to allow you to gather your digital assets and assign an individual or individuals to manage them after you die.

It is now just as important to think about what you want to happen to your digital assets, as it is to your tangible, earth-bound assets when you die. What’s also important: considering what you want to happen to your data, how accessible and enduring you want it to be and how it will be protected.

People in their older years have seen amazing leaps and changes in technologies. We’ve moved from transistor radios to VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray. We’ve gone from land line home phones to smart phones that have the same computing power or more than a desktop. The first social media site was launched in 1997, and websites like Myspace have come and gone.

Will the current websites and software still be available and commonly used in five, ten, fifty, or one hundred years? It’s impossible to know what the world will look like then. However, unless a plan is made for digital legacies, it’s unlikely that your digital legacy will be accessible to others in the near and far future.

Here’s the problem: even if your executor does succeed in memorializing your Facebook page, will there be things on the page that you don’t want anyone to see after you’ve gone? There’s a wealth of data on social media to sift through, including items you may not want to be part of your digital legacy.

Consider the comparison to people who lived during previous ages. We may not be able to see their lives online, but they have left behind physical artifacts—letters, diaries, photographs—that we can hold in our hands and that tell us their stories. These artifacts will survive through the generations.

A digital estate plan can ensure that your data is managed by someone you trust. Talk with your estate planning attorney to learn how to put such a plan in place, when you are creating your legacy. Your last will and testament is a starting point in today’s digital world.

See how digital asset planning is a vital part of good estate planning.

Reference: The Scotsman (May 16, 2019) The ghost in the machine—what will happen to online you after death?”

Use a Will to Communicate Your Wishes

Without a will or other estate planning documents, your property is distributed according to the law of intestate succession in the state where you live at the time of your death. That means any wishes you might have as to how your assets are distributed will not be considered, says the article “Make Your Wishes Known” from the Concord Monitor. Having a good last will and testament in place solves this problem.

If you want to have a say in what happens to your property, including financial accounts and personal items, you need a will. However, that’s not the only document you need. Here’s a list of the documents that are part of an estate plan.

Last will and testament. This transfers property through the probate process. It ensures that you get to tell others how you want your assets distributed. It may include naming a guardian to be responsible for a minor or incapacitated heir’s personal care and assets.

If you have minor children, you may wish to include a testamentary trust so assets can be managed, and their distribution controlled. If your family includes an individual with special needs, you’ll want a Special Needs Trust (SNT), so they do not lose their eligibility for government benefits.

There are many different types of trusts, and they serve different purposes.

Revocable Trust. This can distribute property without going through probate. It also preserves privacy, since documents do not become public. To avoid probate, the trust must be funded during your lifetime, by changing the title on assets from your name to the name of your revocable trust. That may include bank and investment accounts, personal property and real estate. Income, dividends, gains and losses continue to be reported on your tax returns, while you are living.

If you own a business, talk with your estate planning attorney about whether the ownership of the business should be transferred to a trust.

Married couples should speak with their estate planning attorney about having a joint trust together, or if they should each have separate trusts for estate tax planning, creditor protection, protecting children from prior marriages, or ensuring the continuation of a family business.

You may need a pour-over will with your revocable trust, so assets may be transferred into the revocable trust that are outside of the trust at the time of your death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to discuss this in detail, to see if it is a good option.

Joint ownership. If assets are owned in joint tenancy, property automatically transfers upon death to the surviving joint owner. It is not affected by your will and is a way to avoid probate. However, there may be a loss of control and there may be gift, estate, or income tax consequences.

Beneficiary designations. Life insurance, retirement assets, annuities and other Pay on Death accounts all have a person named to receive the asset upon the death of the owner. Every asset you own with a beneficiary designation should be checked every few years to make sure the right person is set to receive the asset. The beneficiary designation supersedes anything written in your will. There should always be a primary and a secondary beneficiary named, just in case the primary predeceases you or does not want to accept the asset.

Power of Attorney. Everyone should have a Power of Attorney, in the event of incapacity. This permits someone to act as your agent in any financial matters. There is also the Health Care Power of Attorney, which gives another person the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to communicate your wishes.

Power of Attorney and Trust are Meant for the Living, Not Just Heirs
Power of Attorney and Trust are Meant for the Living, Not Just Heirs

All these documents should be the foundation of your estate plan. Each person’s situation is different, but an experienced estate planning attorney will help determine what you need.

Find out why you need an estate plan.

Reference: Concord Monitor (April 22, 2019) “Make Your Wishes Known”