Sep 17, 2012

Don't let your digital assets die hard

A recent story in the press reported that Bruce Willis was considering suing Apple, angry that he could not pass along his enormous I-Tunes account to his daughters in his will because he does not own his account, but merely has a license to access the musical library. Although reports of the lawsuit were denied by the Die Hard star, the Willis story is just the lighter side of what has become an increasingly important estate plannning issue. Making arrangements for the management/disposition of your digital assets when you become incapacitated, or when you die.

Our increasingly paperless society means more and more of us have online accounts of various types. Most sites have multiple layers of security to prevent identity theft. Your trustees, agents and personal representatives need to know about how to access, manage and distribute these assets when you die, or when you become incapacitated.. If they do not, the possibility of "losing" an asset in cyberspace is not science fiction, it's fact.

"Digital asset' is an extremely broad category. It includes anything stored on your computer or on the internet. It need not be something that has dollar value. It can include actual assets, such as an I-Tunes account, or a method to access a real asset. Some examples:

1. Your actual hardware and files - external drives, software with files that you may have password protected, like a financial program reflecting your expenditures and income.

2. Online bank accounts and brokerage accounts.

3. Other accounts such as Amazon, Ebay, PayPal. 

4. Online bill-paying sites.

5. Credit card records.

6. Automatic bill paying.

7. Medical records.

8. Frequent flyer accounts.

9. Shopping sites that may have your credit card information or banking information stored on them.

10. Your internet service provider.

11. Sites where you have registered domain names or blogsites you operate.

12. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

13. Photo sharing sites like Flickr.

14. Other sites that may be a repository of important personal data - for example,

What to do: Just as you do with valuable tangible assets like jewelry or art, make a list of your digital assets. List the URL, user names, passwords, PINS, answers to security questions, etc. Mindful of falling victim to cybercrime or identity theft, many clients are uncomfortable committing this information to paper.But it must be done and stored securely, and your fiduciaries must be informed about where to find the information if and when it's needed. Keep it updated, too. In the alternative, you could store this information on your computer in a password-protected file; but then of course, your fiduciary will need to know the name of that file and the password. Another possibility is to use an online service like

Include instructions for what should be done with your online assets, just as you would with tangible assets. An asset with monetary value --for example, a domain name you own for a website that produces revenue -- could be handled in this way. Many of my clients have enormous number of miles stored in frequent flyer accounts, or in various rewards programs, and would like these unused miles and rewards to go to their heirs. Keep in mind that every program has its own rules for transferability.

What about assets that have other than monetary value? You need to make arrangements for those, too. If for example you have your family history posted on or old family photos on, this critical information could be lost forever if you don't authorize someone to access it. You obviously cared enough to document your personal and family history, so make sure it doesn't fall into the digital abyss.

Then there are the social media sites like Each of these sites has its own policies regarding the death or incapacity of the owner. Facebook is notable because when furnished with the proper documentation, it will allow the decedent's page to remain online to serve as a memorial to the deceased account holder.

Lastly, most of us have email accounts these days. Some of us have multiple email accounts. Many times those emails contain important information or sensitive information that you would want people to see - or not see. Make sure you list your email account(s) and direct what is to be done with it.

Every site and service has its own rules, so be sure to check. Here's one website that purports to list several service providers' rules when it comes to deceased account holders (although I cannot vouch for its accuracy).

For a story about one man with multiple digital assets and how he included them all in his estate plan, click here. 

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