If you are like most people, you are putting more of your digital life on the internet. You put memorable family pictures on Facebook or other social media. Your on-line banking and tax records are very likely saved on your computer. You scan important documents and upload them to your computer. You save important hobby or recreational data on line. If you own web domains or an online business, those are valuable assets of your estate.
According to 100memories.com, if you are 65 years of age or more, on an average 12% of your vital information is preserved on line. If you're age 45, 56% of your life data is locked in your computer. At age 25, 72% of your history is web-based and if you were born in this century, a whopping 86% of your life records are digital.
What would happen to that treasured data if you die or become disabled and cannot retrieve them? Would these assets be lost to you and your heirs?
PARENT OF SLAIN SOLDIER DENIED ACCESS TO HIS PHOTOS AND EMAILS
In 2004, Marine Lance Corporal Jusin Ellsworth was killed in action in Iraq. His grieving family tried to get his Yahoo password in order to retrieve the photos and emails he had left. Yahoo refused stating that they could supply the password only to the account holder. In 2005, 22 year-old Loren Williams died in a motorcycle accident. His distraught mother tried to get access to his Facebook account but the company refused. In both these cases the families were ultimately able to secure the photographs and other digital information but they endured delay, legal expense and considerable grief in order to get these legacy assets of their loved ones.
In 2016 the Minnesota Legislature enacted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (Minnesota Statutes chapter 521A) to allow a personal representative, trustee, attorney in fact or other surrogate to get access to internet data. While this was a step forward, the procedures are somewhat complicated and the internet user should be proactive to protect their web assets for themselves and their heirs.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND YOUR FAMILY
There are several steps you can take as your digital life continues to grow.
The first thing is to compile a journal with an inventory of your family records, financial information, passwords, and access instructions to your websites, emails and social media locations. This data should be kept in a written book or in a digital format such as a flash drive that does NOT require logging in to your computer to access. Be sure to tell your spouse or loved ones where to find it if you pass away or become incapacitated.
You can also enroll in a digital program that can store your precious documents and photos as well as providing access instructions to your digital treasures. Services such as dropbox.com or sync.com can meet this need. It's a good idea to access for a trusted loved one whom you want to have access to the account. Of course, you should tell that person about the account and provide him or her with the master password.
TIPS FOR YOUR ESTATE PLAN
When doing a Will or Trust, it is wise to address your digital assets separately. You should have an addendum to the estate planning document that has a confidential written listing of those assets we spoke of previously. Otherwise you may want to have a confidential addendum that has the access and password information to your digital storage device or cloud provider.
Also you may want to have a "digital executor" who is different from the personal representative (executor) who is managing your tangible assets and accounts. For example, you may designate your spouse or sibling to be administrator of your overall estate (such as real estate and bank accounts) but you may want your geeky nephew who is internet-savvy to handle how you want your digital assets to be distributed.
When considering protection of your digital assets for your estate, you should confer with our office or another estate planning attorney for assistance.