We’re all aware of the importance of having legal documents in place, such as a will or trust and advance directive. While your intentions for personal assets like grandma’s engagement ring or your childhood baseball card collection may be clearly spelled out, most people have given little thought to the legacy of their digital assets.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be complicated, and there are some easy steps you can take today to get started.
Your digital asset footprint is significantly larger than you think.
Between email and social media accounts, subscription services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Prime, and cloud storage for photos, files, and digital music, most people have a meaningful digital presence. It’s estimated that the average person has over 100 online accounts and that number will only continue to grow.
With the increasing popularity of online billpay and paperless statements, our finances leave less of a “paper trail” than ever before, meaning that ensuring family members or executors have the ability to access accounts and pay bills is critically important.
Writing down your passwords isn’t enough.
Perhaps you’ve diligently tracked your online presence with a list of accounts and their associated usernames and passwords.
Aside from the obvious safety concerns and challenges keeping up with sites that require frequent password changes, providing someone with this information doesn’t grant them legal authority to access your digital assets.
In fact, they are likely violating most sites’ Terms of Service Agreements, which typically do not allow a transfer of ownership or use once the original user has died. It’s even possible that heirs could be found guilty of “hacking” a loved one’s account, despite the most honest intentions.
Adopted by 46 states, the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act provides guidance on how a person’s digital assets may be accessed upon their passing.
RUFADAA grants an executor the same access to digital assets as the decedent had during life and is intended to allow an array of privileges, including access to photos, emails, contacts, and the ability to delete or modify social media accounts and pay final expenses.
RUFADAA establishes a hierarchy of three “tiers” for how a person’s digital assets may be accessed after death.
Tier 1: Online Tools
Some platforms allow users to designate instructions as to how their accounts should be handled in the instance of incapacity or death – essentially a digital “power of attorney” that can be changed or revoked at any time.
If you’re an iPhone user, you can set up a Digital Legacy Contact by going to “Settings,” tapping on your Apple ID profile at the top of the page, selecting “Password and Security,” then “Legacy Contact.” From there, select a Legacy Contact who can access your phone in the case of your death.
We encourage you to take these easy steps now and see if similar designations are available on other platforms you use.
Tier 2: Legal Documents
If you have not made any designations directly with an online provider, or the option to do so is unavailable, an attorney can help you incorporate digital planning into your will, trust, or power of attorney.
You can provide detailed instructions as to what access should or should not be granted to an executor or surviving family member in the event there are certain accounts, photos, or emails you wish to share or remain private.
Some people opt to designate a “digital fiduciary,” separate from your executor or personal representative, who will be solely responsible for the management of your digital assets. This person should be provided a copy of the document designating them as such and have the tech savvy necessary to navigate the role.
It is important to know that designations made through online tools, such as those listed in Tier 1, supersede destinations made in legal documents, so make sure you keep both updated as your desires and life circumstances change.
Tier 3: Terms of Service Agreements
We’ve all become accustomed to scrolling through the “fine print” every online provider inevitably requires and clicking “I agree.”
Unless you’re an attorney or glutton for punishment, most people fail to understand what they are agreeing to in these Terms of Service, especially in the case of death. It’s not uncommon for some providers to stipulate that a user’s account is immediately terminated upon death, meaning it’s especially important to make sure legacy instructions are made directly with the provider (Tier 1) or clearly spelled out in your estate planning documents (Tier 2).
Estate Planning for Modern Times
With so much of our lives spent online these days and important assets moving beyond just the tangible, it’s critical to have a plan in place. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive to start.
If you have questions about your unique situation or want help getting a plan in place, reach out. We’re here to help.