No matter how technologically challenged you consider yourself, chances are a significant portion of your life resides online these days. The paradox about the many bits of ourselves we store digitally - blogs, photos, email, financial data and the like - is that they're things we want both to share and to keep private.
When you're creating an estate plan, it's important to include all this information. Have you considered, for example, what will happen to your social media accounts and online photo albums? Or whether you'd want your blog shut, sold or run under new management?
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The first step in disposing of your digital assets is to inventory them. Start with the obvious: email accounts, social media or networking accounts and information stored on employer intranets or computers. Next, make sure you don't have any lingering accounts that could create problems for your heirs. Think back, for example, to old email addresses.
Once you've accounted for all your digital property, consider what value, if any, it has. An employee of mine was friends with a well-respected biology professor in Atlanta. He'd outlined in his will that he wanted to donate his computer files to the Smithsonian Institution for research. His files were eventually published by the Smithsonian and did exactly what he'd hoped - furthered the education of others. My employee's friend wasn't seeking payment for his theories, but he did want to make sure that his heirs held rights to the information to ensure it was protected and that they'd reap any royalties generated.
With the vast opportunities available to us online today, you may discover some of your digital assets have real value. Someone might, for example, pay real money for a popular blog or a Twitter account with many followers. Do you want to sell it? Do you want someone to take over the reins? What you want to do with your property may go a long way in defining your legacy after you're gone.
Photographs are another asset of obvious personal, or even monetary, value. Make sure to include in your estate plan whom you want to take ownership and under what restrictions, if any. (For related reading, check out Tweeting: The Next "New" Profession.)
Currently, there is very little legislation stipulating how online accounts, such as email and social media, are to be handled following the owner's death. Many sites make it difficult for anyone other than the account holder to access them, which can create problems for your loved ones. Ask yourself whom you trust to do what you want with each account. Then map out instructions. Otherwise, if one of your heirs tries to gain access to any of your digital property, the decision could end up in the hands of the court or website administrators.
In his book The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman tells the story of Justin Ellsworth, a U.S. Marine killed in action in Iraq. Justin's parents wanted access to his Yahoo (Nasdaq:YHOO) email account so they could gather more details about his life. After Yahoo refused, his parents had to go to court to gain access to his personal email account in a process in which Justin had no say.
One way to make a difficult situation easier on your loved ones is to use the services of a company like Entrusted that allows your executor to take control of your digital assets or, if you prefer, to delete them.
Nobody relishes the prospect of dealing with a matter like this. That said, dealing with it while you can is a small price for the ability to share important pieces of your life after you're gone.