By Phil Davis
January is always the time for making New Year Resolutions, at least for many people. It’s also a time to review last year’s resolution and realize how many were forgotten or left undone! I don’t normally like to do this, but there is one resolution that I’m making for 2015 that I intend to keep.
Resolved: Create My Digital Asset Estate Plan (Virtual Will)
Almost without realizing it, we have shifted toward an all-digital culture where things like family photos, home movies, and personal letters now exist only in digital form. Moreover a growing part of our digital life is stored in services like FaceBook, Flickr, YouTube, and Gmail. Have you considered what will happen to your accounts and digital assets when you die? Whether you like it or not your digital assets have an afterlife.
It is important to think about these things early and create a plan so that your family and heirs will not be left with a mess should you die or get incapacitated. Without a plan, the executor of your estate may have difficulty tracking down accounts, extracting photos and other important information, and then closing the accounts.
Laws have not caught up with our rapidly evolving technology. There are no uniform policies across technology platforms, states, or countries. As a result, the executor of your estate may have to go to court to gain access to your online assets. State Senator Dorothy Hukill, Port Orange, states “There’s nothing standardized. And there’s nothing in law that addresses it. If we don’t address it soon, I see it exploding as a problem.” Hukill, an attorney specializing in probate and estate planning, says she will file legislation on the issue. Basically, her proposal would allow a designated fiduciary or personal representative access to the dearly departed’s digital life.
According to Kate Santich writing in the Orlando Sentinal “Even people who do make provisions now — who specify their desires in a will, for instance, or leave their user names and passwords to a trusted loved one — can’t count on having their wishes fulfilled, at least not legally.”
Identify Your Digital Assets
So what are we to do in this period of “legal limbo.” The first thing is to identify and inventory your digital assets — accounts, passwords, backup files, computer files, social media, email, online banking, etc.
Digital assets can be organized into several categories:
- Computers and Devices: Content and access codes for desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.
- Email Accounts: Account access codes and messages.
- Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and others.
- Cloud Sites: DropBox, Google Drive, Onebox, Box, and others.
- Off-site Backups: Crashplan, BackBlaze, Amazon S3, and others.
- Online businesses: Online stores, blogs, and websites, including PayPal, eBay and Etsy.
- Multimedia content or digital mementos from Shutterfly, Snapfish, Flickr, Instagram, and other digital content sites.
Collect all the information needed to access your accounts, then document it in a way that is secure but easily accessed and understood by your Digital Executor. Think about all your digital assets, both personal and professional, and think about what they might be worth, financially, and emotionally.
McAfee recently released the results of a global digital assets survey and our digital devices hold an estimated $35,000 of value on average. Topping the charts are irreplaceable personal memories, photos and videos, at an estimated $17,000 in value. Additionally over half of respondents expressed they kept assets on their devices that are impossible to recreate, download or purchase again. (source: The Digital Beyond website)
Name a Digital Executor
Your digital executor should be someone that you trust and is comfortable with computers and technology. They will be responsible for managing your local and online digital assets. You will want to provide them with a copy of your Virtual Will and with your regular updates.
Create a Virtual Will
Your virtual will is all the information needed to document your accounts, their location, login information, passwords, and all the other metadata that goes along with digital assets. Don’t forget photos, documents, and backups stored in the cloud or in off-site locations.
Your virtual will should specify what you want done with everything and provide all the information needed by your Executor. You might want to:
- Have your executor archive everything for your heirs.
- Provide access to designated content to specific individuals or groups.
- Delete some or all of your digital assets. Be specific about your wishes.
- If you want to let your executor decide what to do with your assets you should make the clear in the virtual will.
You might want to archive your most important digital content and then ensure that your executor has all the information needed to access the archive. If you have been following the advice to establish and maintain good backups, then you already have a start on your archive.
1Password is an excellent program to securely keep track of most of your important information, but you must be sure to include the master password needed to access the program in your will. Another good option is to create an encrypted spreadsheet to contain the information. You can download a PDF file that makes it easy to collect much of this information.
Periodically Review Your Virtual Will and Keep it Updated
Most of us are constantly modifying our accounts, adding new ones, changing passwords, and making other changes so we must not only create the will and give it to our executor, but we must review and update it on a regular basis. I suggest that you do this at least once a year. Providing computer and mobile device access to your digital executor or heir – including physical location, usernames, and passwords – is essential to your digital asset estate planning.
One resource that others have recommended is a book called Your Digital Afterlife by Evan Carroll and John Romano. This book, along with other resources can be found on the website The Digital Beyond. This website maintains a list of online services which are designed to help you plan for your digital death and afterlife or memorialize loved ones. These services come in all flavors including digital estate services, posthumous email services and online memorials.
The information contained in this article is for educational purposes, not be construed as legal advice. Rather it is a collection of good practices that make sense, even while you are in this life. As always you should use your own good judgment and adapt these recommendations to your own situation. I’m not a lawyer, so if you have questions about any of this you should consult your own attorney.