Digital Estate Planning

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The body perishes, but your online presence doesn’t. And it’s quickly becoming part of your estate planning.

What happens when we die? A question often asked but difficult to answer; while death is unavoidable, one way to have control of the aftermath that follows once your gone is through your will. And while a typical will includes instructions for division of assets like property, wealth and other items, with today’s advancing technology it may be time to begin planning a digital estate.

Digital estate planning is different. People envision an ‘estate’ to consist of family jewelry, documents and property, but not a social media profile. But precious family photos are often found on Flicker or Instagram, documents are stored in a Google email account, there’s ‘property’ on iTunes and digital identities are imprinted in social media accounts. Would the deceased user want these accounts to remain active? And who would have control over them?

“Everything we do is online now,” observes Tracy Samantha Schmidt, director of social media strategy and consulting, Crain Communications. “We share so much of ourselves online and store a lot of information in the ‘cloud’ Some of that information is very valuable.”

Cloud is a term to describe storing computer data on multiple servers that can be accessed through the Internet. Ms. Schmidt says the content in the cloud can be very expensive and that she too has questioned the accounts once a user is deceased. She’s also writing a book (You 2.0) on the subject of a digital identity to explore this situation (and others) further.

“Your online reputation is invaluable, but most people don’t understand how personal online reputations work,” Ms. Schmidt explains. “If people aren’t proactive and understand how search engines work, they can miss things…like when negative things appear at the top of a search engine.”

Twitter is one of the most popular and fastest connecting social media sites in the world and In the event of the death of a Twitter user, twitters policy wants to work with a person “authorized to act on the behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.” A long list of information – including proof of a death certificate – is needed before an account can be deactivated.

Instagram has a policy but it’s less specific: In the event of the death of an Instagram user, one needs to send an email to support@instagram.com. And communication will be through strictly email.

Facebook’s policy on a deceased user reads as follows: “When a person passes away, we memorialize their account to protect their privacy. When a timeline is memorialized, we continue to honor the account’s privacy settings and implement security features to protect the account. It is our policy to memorialize the account of a deceased person. In order to protect the privacy of the deceased person, we cannot provide login information for the account. However, once it has been memorialized, we take measures to secure the account.”

Other Digital assets like iTunes and other accounts held on electronic devices have licenses that are usually only valid as of right now to the account holder. The account holder could have made the investment of thousands of dollars in digital copies of movies, music or books, and these assets may be harder to pass on to survivors of the deceased.

Long-time Chicago estate attorney Dennis Delman has yet to handle someone’s digital estate but says this new form of property was something he was anticipating: “I knew it was coming. It’s moved to a whole different level. Once something is out on the Internet, how do you protect it?”

Digital estates are fairly new and only a handful of states have drafted laws on it. Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island have enacted statues addressing fiduciary access to digital assets. Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York and Oregon have considered or are considering legislation. And current legislation is different in regards to the types of digital assets covered. According to Mr. Delman, estate planning isn’t a difficult process, but rather an emotional one. “Nobody wants to think of their mortality. It seems the older you are the more emotionally difficult it becomes.”

A lot of questions may arise from having someone else control your online accounts, especially ones social media accounts. Katy Lynch, president/co-founder of SocialKaty, Inc., a social media marketing agency says, “There should be guidelines/laws as far as language and posting content is concerned. If a family member is to take over a recently deceased person’s account, then that family member is responsible for making sure that the individual’s reputation isn’t tarnished. Foul language, questionable content, spamming and anything else that could potentially harm the deceased’s image should be banned.”

But could these accounts be a digital extension of ourselves long after we’re gone? Possibly, one day, our grandkids can look up our accounts and really get to know us through the posts, pictures and videos we shared. “I’ve thought about this a lot lately and I love the idea of social media becoming a part of our story,” shares Ms. Lynch. “A story that our kids can pass along to their kids and so on. Traditionally, reading through family history records can be time-consuming and doesn’t paint a true picture of where we came from. With all of these advancements in technology, including social media, learning more about our lineage will be a lot more exciting and information will be easily accessible.”

By Angelica Sanchez

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