What Happens to Your Digital Assets?

| February 3, 2014 | 0 Comments

As more and more of our life moves from filing cabinets and desk drawers into “the cloud,” it is becoming more important to plan for the management of your electronic assets at death or disability. Think about your iTunes library. Or (for the six people reading this column who don’t own an Apple product) think about movies you may have purchased and stored in digital, rather than physical, format. Have you thought about how your survivors might access these assets after you’re gone?

The most basic digital asset is your email account. Can someone get into your email account to help wind up your affairs? (Speaking of affairs, have you thought about whom you might want to see your email account? But that’s a different article entirely…) Does this person (your executor or survivor) have your passwords to access your electronic life?

Think about a week in your life. A 2007 Microsoft study suggested the average person had 6.5 passwords, each of which was used on 3.9 websites. And that’s probably on the low side considering the digital migration to Facebook and Netflix since then. Personally; I have a spreadsheet that lists over 150 user IDs and Passwords for everything from Amazon to Yelp.

Can your spouse access your bank account to take over electronic bill paying? Or to access directly deposited paychecks or pension payments? Can your survivors access your iTunes or airline miles to retrieve those assets? What about photo sharing websites like Facebook or Shutterfly? Some of these accounts will be deleted if they are inactive for too long, and it would be a tragedy to lose years worth of family pictures for lack of a user ID and password.

Password sharing between family members is the simplest solution, although I might point out that it is against the rules under most website terms and conditions and illegal under the Stored Communications Act of 1986. Setting aside the legality issue, sharing passwords also presupposes that you haven’t changed any of them and that your partner or spouse has a current list. And that your list is secure. And, thinking about the iPhone 5’s fingerprint password and developments in retina scanning technology, that old alphanumeric password may soon go the way of the buggy whip. After all, you can’t really voice-print someone in a coma.

As with so much about estate planning, your best recourse is simply to have a plan.

Start by taking inventory. If you haven’t done so already, make a list of every website you use where funds or other assets might reside, and every financial institution where you have an account. You should also include a reason as to why each site is important to you. Maybe you’ve done a lot of family history research on Ancestry.com that you don’t want lost. Maybe you want to pass on your 10,000 eBook Kindle collection.

Decide what you want done with your electrons. You might want to try to preserve some digital assets, such as blog posts or recipes you’ve stored on the web. Speaking of which, imagine if Julie Powell (Julie and Julia) had died just as she finished her blog. Would her husband have had rights to her story? Would he have known how to access the blog to memorialize it? You can instruct your executor on how you want your accounts handled. For example, you might want to delete your twitter account but memorialize your Facebook timeline for posterity. Pictures and digital music files can be backed up on a local computer or burned to a disk.

Designate your digital executor. Just as you list other powers for your agents in legal documents (like paying bills or moving money), your will and powers of attorney should include language to allow an agent to manage your electronic media, too.

These steps may seem daunting, but as you can see, planning ahead can make it a lot easier to pick up the pieces when the time comes.

This column is prepared by Rick Brooks, CFA, CFP®. Rick is Vice President for Investment Management with Blankinship & Foster, LLC, a wealth advisory firm specializing in comprehensive financial planning and investment management. Rick can be reached at (858) 755-5166, or by email at brooks@bfadvisers.com. Rick and his family live in Mission Hills.

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