Digital Estate Planning in a Digital Age

Digital Estate Planning in an Increasingly Digital Age

digital assets

 In more recent history, a news story circulated through social-media spheres involving a lawsuit by Bruce Willis against Apple Inc. involving his right to transfer ownership of his vast iTunes collection to his heirs. Though the story was debunked by his representatives, it raised an interesting dilemma surrounding the ownership of digital assets and the transferability of those assets posthumously. Digital estate planning in a digital age has become increasingly relevant.

In our increasingly digital world there is a greater need to protect the digital assets we increasingly amass over time. Digital content is referred to “any information that is published or distributed in a digital form, including text, data, sound recordings, photographs and images, motion pictures, and software.” [1] Digital assets include such digital content as one’s online persona, passwords to the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and blogs. [2] Currently, there are only five states that have laws governing digital estate planning. [3] As a result, an overwhelming majority of jurisdictions lack statutory guidelines governing digital asset bequeathment leaving loved ones lacking legal recourse. Traditional estate planning plays a major role in protecting both tangible and intangible assets alike, however has been slow to evolve with emerging technology.

Traditional Estate Planning

traditional estate planning

Essentially, one’s estate amounts to anything a person owns, tangible or intangible. Traditional estates are defined as a person’s interest in land or other property. [4] Generally, a person’s estate consists of traditional assets defined as items that are owned and have value. [5] Accordingly, traditional estate planning primarily involves the posthumous disposition of property typically involving a three step process. [6] First, there is a consultation to consider an individual’s present and lifetime needs. [7] Second, and most importantly, a thorough plan designed around meeting those needs during the client’s lifetime. [8] Last but not least, traditional estate planning involves the creation of a unified estate plan, which balances the client’s needs during his/her lifetime with the needs of his estate after death. [9] Nonetheless, our increasingly digital world has created a whole new class of assets that traditional estate-planning tools may not be equipped to handle, including the ability to legally transfer a decedent’s ownership of digital assets.

Digital Estate Planning

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Digital estate planning not only promotes alienability of ownership, but it also:

  • Makes life easier for the estate’s executor and family members.
  • Impedes identify theft.
  • Protects decedent’s intellectual property interest.
  • Preserves a decedents digital legacy [10]

Currently, there is no standard to bequeath ones digital estate, however digital estate planning can be something as simple as executory guidelines constituting a letter to one’s executor listing important URLs, usernames, passwords, security codes, and other information needed to access online accounts. [11] Since one of the most common forms of digital assets is licenses which are fully transferable within a trust, author Joseph M. Metrek suggests providing clients with a “Digital Asset Revocable Trust” (DART). [12] Essentially, the DART, like a traditional trust, will retain ownership of digital assets beyond the life of the grantor. Therefore, a trustee would have the authority to manage and transfer authorizing licensing agreements to a client’s heirs based on the needs established when the estate was created.

In addition, an executor or fiduciary can mitigate the amount of personal hardship and grievance associated with digital estate planning by following a simple set of guidelines. [13] Experts recommend fiduciaries implement the following crucial steps when administering a decedent’s digital estate:

  • Seek the assistance of technical help if necessary.
  • Work on consolidating virtual assets to as few “platforms” as possible (e.g. have multiple e-mail accounts set to forward to a single e-mail account.
  • Obtain statements (or data) of the prior twelve months of the decedent‘s important financial accounts.
  • Consider notifying the individual [sic] in the decedent‘s e-mail contact list and other social media contacts.
  • Change passwords to those that the fiduciary can control (and remember).
  • Keep all accounts open for at least a period of time to make sure all relevant or valuable information has been saved and all vendors or other business contacts have been appropriately notified, and so all payables can be paid and accounts receivable have been collected.
  • Remove all private and/or personal data from online shopping accounts (or close them as soon as reasonably possible).
  • The fiduciary should plan on archiving important electronic data for the full duration of the relevant statutes of limitations. [14]

digital-assets

Conclusion

Sadly, many will not implement traditional or digital estate plans, leaving their loved ones to sort out unfinished details of their lives. Estate planning traditionally has been a service primarily utilized by the elderly, however increasing awareness among tech savvy clients can reduce the ambivalence towards estate planning. Essentially, digital content owners face two distinct issues; (1) do they really own their online digital content and if so, (2) how can they pass that ownership or the use of that content on to their loved ones. One thing is for certain however, without digital estate mechanisms, such as DART’s or executory guidelines, even the likes of Bruce Willis would not be able to ensure his loved ones were legally entitled to his vast collection of Rob Zombie albums.

 

  1. What Happens When We Die: Estate Planning of Digital Assets, http://commlaw.cua.edu/res/docs/21-1/Perrone.pdf (last visited Aug 20, 2014).
  2. Michael Walker & Victoria D. Blachly, Virtual Assets, ST003 A.L.I –A.B.A 177 (2011)
  3. Alissa Skelton, Facebook After Death: What Should the Law Say?, MASHABLE (Jan. 26, 2012), http://commcns.org/10BZYRX. Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, Indiana and Connecticut have all enacted laws regarding digital estate planning.
  4. BLACK‘S LAW DICTIONARY 626 (9th ed. 2009).
  5. Id. at 134.
  6. Jerome Solkoff, Scott Solkoff, What is elder law—Estate planning –.14 Fla. Prac., Elder Law § 1:3 (2011-12 ed.), FLA. PRAC., ELDER LAW, § 1:3.
  7. Id.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Planning for digital assets, http://www.southsidetrust.com/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Planning%20for%20digital%20assets.pdf (last visited Aug 20, 2014).
  11. Joseph M. Mentrek, Estate Planning in a Digital World. 19 Ohio Prob. L.J. 195 (2009).
  12. Id.
  13. Walker & Blachly, supra note 2, at 182-85.
  14. See generally id. at 184-85

 

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