It’s not a good idea to pass on leaving your passwords behind, Professor Gerry Beyer of Texas Tech University School of Law cautions.

Those who work in the digital assets world are at the very beginning stages, he says, of determining how conventional estate planning tools affect on-line accounts and other digital assets.

Our attorneys at Geyer Law have shared this very concern with our blog readers before, pointing out that estate planning is no longer about just death and death taxes. Technology, we pointed out, has everything to do with complicating our affairs. How?

  • Our social media accounts often contain personal messages, photos, videos, and other information of a private nature.
  • At the same time, social media websites have strict privacy policies that bar even family members from gaining access to the accounts, and email services have strict user agreements.
  • With so much banking and bill paying happening online, it’s difficult for executors to determine the extent of a person’s assets after he or she dies.

Digital assets include:

  • Email accounts
  • Picture and video storage sites
  • Social networking sites
  • Domain names
  • Games
  • Personal or work computers and their hardware and software
  • Tablets, flash drives, CDs  and DVDs

Very few states have begun to deal with the issues of digital assets, although Professor Beyer, addressing the Financial Planning Association of Central Indiana earlier this month, mentioned that Indiana has made significant strides.

In incorporating digital issues in our estate planning, there are two basic issues Beyer points out:

Ownership
As part of their estate planning, clients need to develop an inventory, including a list of how and where they are held, along with usernames, passwords, and answers to “secret” questions.

Access
One practical problem is that passwords must be periodically changed. In addition, there are obvious privacy issues with placing information such as usernames and passwords in a will or even a trust. Beyer suggests making a list of on-line accounts, passwords, security questions, and answers, noting whether the accounts have monetary value, and special instructions for locating specific assets or information, and designating which assets should be deleted versus which ones should be passed on to family members and who should take care of such business. This document can be printed or stored on a computer, USB flash drive, or in a cloud with remote access.

Meanwhile, Dr. Beyer adds, states are beginning to enact legislation regarding digital assets of the deceased.  Service providers may soon begin to ask for “stand-by” owners to be named in the event of incapacity or death.

At Geyer Law, we discuss with our clients some very practical and everyday considerations when it comes to their online transactions and records even during life.  In the event you become temporarily incapacitated and can’t monitor your on-line accounts, we explain, bad things might happen:

  • identity theft might go undetected
  • your bills might go unpaid, negatively affecting your credit score.

 In many cases, neither the law nor user agreements with providers have fully caught up with these realities. Our thinking is, to the extent possible, we need to help our clients be as prepared as possible to protect their assets – including digital assets!
– by Corinna A. Smith of Rebecca W. Geyer & Associates