When Mellini Kantayya, a Brooklyn actress, used the Internet to gather more than 93,000 signatures for a petition rallying against a $7.7 billion global pharmaceutical company’s price gouging, she began an important new chapter of her digital legacy. Stories about her advocacy spread across the Internet much like the petition she initiated. Years from now, Google searches for “Mellini Kantayya” will provide descendants with links to stories about her efforts to help people with severe allergic reactions combat Mylan’s aggressive EpiPen price increases.
What is a Digital Legacy?
Your digital legacy includes everything you write, save, or post online along with everything others have written or posted about you. The Internet offers an endless stream of online companies that want to store your digital assets on equipment they own and control, but only after you agree to all of the conditions imposed in their Terms of Service agreement. What are your digital assets, why are they at risk, and how can a digital estate plan ensure your digital assets are handled according to your wishes after you’re gone?
What Are Digital Assets?
“Asset” is a familiar term used to describe something of value that you own, such as a home, bank and investment accounts, an automobile, or even a trademark. A trademark, like many digital assets, is an intangible asset because you can’t hold a trademark in your hand – it is “incapable of being perceived by the sense of touch.”
A digital asset can be tangible property such as a computer or smartphone, or an intangible asset represented by digital data that can’t be held in your hand. Your email messages, digital photos, social media posts, online documents, family genealogy, personal or business blogs, and loyalty rewards points are instances of intangible digital assets that hold sentimental or monetary value to you, your heirs, and beneficiaries.
You may be unable to assign a monetary value to digital assets that are a part of your life story. But it’s likely that descendants will one day cherish your digital assets when they look back on family history to help understand how they came to be. Common digital assets that have monetary value include computers, smartphones, online financial and investment accounts, and loyalty reward accounts. You may earn income through blogging, creative work and services, and personal or business websites. Without a plan, your personal digital assets may not even survive to the next generation!
What is at Risk Without a Digital Estate Plan?
Digital technology makes it easier than ever before to communicate and share photos and videos, but the breadth of your digital footprint with assets often protected by a password makes it difficult for an executor to locate and manage your digital assets once you’re gone or incapable. A common estate planning strategy of “Someone will figure it out when I’m gone.” may work for tangible assets that persist indefinitely but doesn’t for digital assets that online service providers can delete at their discretion and without liability according to the Terms of Service agreement you accepted when you created an account. Failure to plan ahead can result in deleted sentimental digital assets and the loss of digital assets with financial value.
Your digital assets that are likely to be lost or destroyed without a digital estate plan include:
- Online accounts where access by others is unlawful without your written authorization
- Email, photos, videos, documents, and contact lists in online accounts
- Financial and investment accounts
- Social media accounts which are inaccessible to estate executors and family
- Valuable loyalty reward points
- Data on computers and smartphones with passwords that lock out an estate executor
Social media and online shopping accounts frequently contain personal information that hackers and cyber-criminals can use to their advantage. Your digital estate plan should include a comprehensive list of online accounts so that each account can be properly closed by your estate executor.
Like other aspects of estate planning, when you document your digital property, online accounts, and other digital assets, you need a strategy to make sure your wishes are carried out without creating discord among family members.
Estate Planning in the Digital Age
Forty years after the introduction of personal computers, states are finally updating existing laws to account for personal use of digital technology. Since the start of 2016, thirty-two states have proposed digital asset legislation with nineteen states voting to enact and the others soon to follow. Now is a perfect time to create a digital estate plan to protect your digital legacy.
Knowing the right questions to ask to evaluate your digital estate can be a challenge. An online digital estate assessment will serve as a starting point for a discussion with trusted individuals about your digital legacy and how your digital assets should be settled.
Once you decide you need a digital estate plan, make sure your plan includes the following essential information:
- an inventory of your digital property and online accounts
- instructions on what you want done with each asset
- location of device and account login credentials
- details on encryption you used to protect important files or devices
- details on device and file backups
You can create a digital estate plan on your own or use a “digital executor service” to create a personalized and comprehensive plan. If you live in a state with a recently passed digital asset law be sure to complete a Digital Asset Authorization to provide or withhold access to electronic communications and other online digital assets. Always review your digital asset information with an estate planning attorney that is knowledgeable about digital assets.
While you may not have championed a cause on the Internet like Mellini Kantayya, you may be surprised to discover that you too have a digital legacy worth protecting.
RUSS HAFT is the Founder and Chief Digital Executor of Mylennium, a Los Angeles based company that brings estate planning into the digital age with products and services that help ensure your digital assets are handled according to your wishes when the unexpected happens. He can be reached at: email@example.com