Estate planning in a digital world

Including online financial accounts and a social media presence within an estate plan may not be as easy as you think.

Estate planning, like most areas of law, has evolved over the last few generations. Instead of simply passing along land, a home and personal property along with some savings, estates are now composed of complex retirement assets, investment portfolios, online accounts and information stored within the cloud. In addition to these assets, loved ones also need to navigate the social media presence that was left behind. The Wall Street Journal recently discussed the complexities of including digital assets within an estate plan, ultimately calling for estate plans to include provisions that specifically address these assets.

Even when these assets are addressed, issues can arise. A recent article published by the Ohio State Bar Association, a group of legal professionals from throughout the state, discussed the problems that can be encountered with digital assets in more detail. The piece noted that the two primary hurdles are identification and access.

The identification issue

Simply knowing what digital assets exist can be a difficult task. Because of the nature of digital assets, it is wise to have a detailed inventory. This list should include the following:

  • Hardware. Items such as computers, laptops, hard drives, discs, phones, tablets and other pieces of hardware should be listed. Also note the hardware's location. For example, list if the laptop or hard drive is kept within a residence or a safe deposit box.
  • Software. Any programs that are used to help manage finances or business programs in estates that include business interests should also be listed.
  • Online files and accounts. This list can include financial accounts, like brokerage and investment sites as well as social media accounts and emails. Have a list that covers your online presence.

These are just some of the more common digital assets that may be present in an estate. Take the time to carefully review your online presence and account for these assets. These assets also often change, so review the inventory and update it on a regular basis.

The access problem

Once the assets are identified, the executor, fiduciary or other individual must have the ability to access the asset. When a password is required, two problems arise. First, the security of the password is compromised whenever it is written down. The owner of the digital asset must consider the risks and benefits of ensuring these assets are accessible to fiduciaries versus the potential risk of the password getting stolen. It is wise to reduce this risk by storing the password in a safe and secure location that only a trusted few are aware of.

The second issue involves the constant changing of passwords. It is important to keep the list up to date, as an expired password is useless.

Legal counsel can help

Unfortunately, even completing these two steps may not be enough. It is also wise to include provisions within your estate plan, whether within a will or trust, that provides the ability for another individual to access these assets. The laws governing estate plans are often evolving, and the language needed to meet these needs may change. As a result, it is wise for those who are considering an estate plan or who are revising an existing plan to contact an experienced Ohio estate planning lawyer. This legal professional will discuss your options and work to better ensure an estate plan is tailored to meet your unique needs.

Keywords: estate planning