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Estate Planning in the Digital Age

Estate Planning in the Digital Age

Between smartphones and computers, the rise of the internet, and digital platforms such as social media and email, much of our lives are now spent in the cloud and online where we create and store massive amounts of data. 

We protect this data with usernames, PINs, and passwords. Unfortunately, if hacked, our personal information, along with bank accounts and credit card numbers, may fall into the wrong hands. 

Since we’re still in the beginning stages of the digital age, it's easy to forget all the information we store online and what will happen to it when we pass away. If you are thinking about setting up your estate plan or making changes to a plan you already have, you should consider what will happen to your digital assets and determine who should have access by speaking with your Orange County estate planning lawyer.  

Let's take a look at what digital estate planning is and how to secure your digital information by including it in your plan.

Defining Digital Estate Planning

Digital estate planning involves organizing your digital assets and making plans for their disposition after death. The first step is listing your digital assets (you have more than you think). From there, you’ll want to review the terms of service with your providers including the instructions and possible restrictions for transferring these assets. An estate planning lawyer in Orange County can be a big help in this manner. 

Securing Your Digital Information

Start by creating a list of your digital assets. Once you start, you'll realize just how much of your information is computer generated. In addition to listing the assets, be sure to note how your loved ones can access the information. A few important devices and platforms include knowing any passwords and otherwise how to access the following: 

  • Computers, tablets, smartphones, hard drives, and flash drives—additional considerations are digital music players, cameras, and e-reader devices
  • Electronically stored information including photos, videos, and eBooks
  • Online accounts such as emails, text messages, and social media accounts
  • Digital currencies such as your Bitcoin wallet, and cryptocurrency savings accounts like BlockFi
  • Websites and blogs including domain names and the domain registrars you bought them from

Let's take a closer look at some of these important digital assets.

Photos

When faced with the task of ensuring a will or trust is in order and all assets have been included and given to those you love, it's easy to leave out the assets that can't be seen or touched. Given that almost all of our photos are digitally produced and stored these days, these highly sentimental snapshots in time are one of the important digital assets that are easy to overlook. 

Consider all of the digital platforms photos may be stored on. Do you have a Shutterfly, Dropbox, or Google account? How about social media sites like Facebook? 

Perhaps even more vexing is when a loved one would like to see any pictures from another who has passed away. This happens countless times today. With an iPhone or iPad, you only have a limited number of attempts to enter the password. Once those password attempts are exhausted, the device is locked and more than likely Apple will not unlock it for anyone--even the owner of the device. In that case, it would need to be reset to factory settings in order to operate at all, and all data including pictures would be lost.

Without the information on how to access devices such as cell phones, these valuable family memories could be lost forever. 

Pictures are the only items that can be lost forever. Email email accounts which with the right password in hand can be accessed, might also be lost permanently.

Online Accounts

In addition to items with sentimental value, those with monetary value can also be lost and forgotten. Sometimes this is due to your beneficiary's inability to access them, while other times it's simply that no family member, accountant, executor, successor trustee, or lawyer knows about them. With today's regulations protecting personal identity, data privacy laws, and limited access to digital accounts, it's difficult and often impossible to access the information once the owner has passed away.

Preventing Identity Theft

Millions of people experience identity theft and fraud every year. Common targets include mortgages, student loans, car loans, and credit cards. In fact, thieves can also gain access to online accounts and seize control of them. 

Failure to close or transfer accounts can result in lost revenue from the estate (creditors may file claims from new outstanding charges) as well as lost time and increased trouble for your family should identity theft or fraud occur. 

Some third-party companies can help alert you of a breach, but this is often time-consuming and difficult to clear. Digital thieves know this and use it to their advantage to get away with as much data as possible.

Storing Your Information

Be sure to keep a list of your online assets and digital accounts--but keep the access information private and available to your loved ones in the event of your passing. A will becomes a public record when filed, so be sure to consult with your estate planning attorney in Orange County regarding your digital assets and how best to include them in your estate yet keep them safe. 

Keep in mind that not all attorneys have current estate planning documents. In these cases, their documents may not include digital information protection for your loved ones. With this in mind, choose wisely when you select your lawyer to prepare your estate planning documents.

One solution is ensure that your lawyer provides you with power of attorney to the digital assets in your estate planning documents.  In this manner, the person you give power of attorney to will have a far better chance of having access to your digital property. It is important to let your agent for your power of attorney, executor or successor trustee know of the location of your documents. You should also give them the name and phone number of your Orange County estate planning attorney who may also have a copy of the documents needed for access.

Determining Your Beneficiaries

Once you have a list of items, it's time to determine what you want to do with your digital assets. You may want to have some digital property erased, but you will more than likely want to transfer some of the information to your beneficiaries. 

Include your wishes in your will or trust and let your executor or successor trustee know how you'd like to handle this asset and where your information is stored.

Discuss Your Digital Assets With Your Estate Planning Attorney

The digital age has created vast amounts of data and paperless options for those opting to perform everyday financial tasks and communication online. It's easy to forget about this unseen data when making end of life plans, but incorporating planning for these digital assets results in much less stress for your family. 

Including these assets in your trust ensures the most likely scenario where appropriate people receive the assets, whether financial or sentimental. Taking time to address your digital assets may also assist your loved ones in decreasing taxes and minimize other financial issues. 

An estate planning attorney Orange County CA who understands digital assets can help you integrate these assets into your trust and create a complete estate plan.  

At Parker Law Offices, we've worked with countless individuals, families, and businesses, ensuring that their last wishes are carried through and protected. We are able to uncover assets, including those that can be easily forgotten, including digital holdings often when the proper digital asset language is in your estate planning documents. Procrastination can lead to many complications for your family and friends. Taking care of your affairs now may provide you with peace of mind. Call us, your trusted Orange County estate planning attorney, today to set up a free consultation.

Maria Parker assists her clients plan for their end of life health care wishes and the ultimate distribution of their wealth after death. She personally experienced the importance of planning at the time her father passed away.

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