Have you ever considered what will happen to your Kindle book collection after you die?
Probably not. However, that is an important question to ponder. By now, most people have come to understand what it means to have your estate in order. Savvy Boomers know that they need to double-check account titles, Will, Trusts, insurance policies, and Powers of Attorney. However, many people don’t realize that their wishes fail to address a sizable asset that has emerged over the past decade: their Digital Estate.
What exactly is “Digital Estate”?
Digital Estate planning is about organizing all of your digital assets and property and making arrangements that address what will happen to them after you die or otherwise lose the ability to use or manage them.
Before you dismiss this as irrelevant for your personal situation, keep in mind that you don’t have to be a tech whiz to have Digital Estate. Do you use Facebook? How about a cloud storage service for thousands of family pictures? Perhaps a website or a blog? If your answer is “yes,” then you need a plan for your Digital Estate.
The best way to get your arms around your Digital Estate is no different from tangible belongings: by making a list first. Here are some categories to get you started.
- “Hard assets” such as computers, laptops, digital readers like Kindle or Nook, smartphones, external data storage drives.
- Social media and networking accounts (FB, LinkedIn, Twitter, Insta, etc.) This should include your videogaming accounts as well.
- Online data storage accounts such as Box.com.
- Domain names, and
- Intellectual property.
Why is it important?
There are several ways in which your Digital Estate could be valuable. The most obvious one is emotional value: pictures of your son’t graduation ceremony or your daughter’s wedding may not have any dollar signs attached, but they are certainly important for the family history. More and more people rely on those “pictures in the cloud” as their virtual memory books. If your family has no way of getting to those memories, they will be lost when you pass away.
Then, there is practical value. In this day and age, people expect to learn each other’s news from their newsfeed (not the phone tree). Would someone be able to log into your Facebook account and post the arrangements for your memorial service?
Finally, there is potential for commercial value (for example, a website domain that you own may be worth some money), as well as considerations of copyright and intellectual property.
Making a list is also a good place to start asking questions about what you do and don’t own. For example, a Kindle account (and all the books you have ever purchased on the device) will remain active as long as the Amazon account that it’s linked to is active. However, when you “buy” a book on Kindle, you don’t actually buy the rights to own a copy of that book (as would a paper copy). Instead, you are licensing a copy of the book for personal use. As you can see, the question of what happens to your eBook collection enters murky waters because legal rules may not have caught up to technology yet.
Quick tips to avoid mistakes with your Digital Estate
Even recognizing that we are in uncharted territory, there is still value in thinking through your digital assets and your plan for them.
Begin by making a list, being careful to include every online account that you have. This is a good opportunity to close down any inactive accounts that you haven’t used for years.
Then, explore what you want to happen to each active account you’ve listed. For example, Facebook gives users the option to “memorialize” an account of a deceased person and preserve this electronic space for friends and family to share memories. Twitter allows immediate family members to deactivate the account with proof-of-death documentation. Google has an Inactive Account Manager service that allows you to automatically transfer the account to a designated person after a certain period of account inactivity. Different platforms have their own rules for addressing this complex issue, so keep your eyes open and ask the question.
Finally, consider naming someone as your digital executor. While this is not a legally enforceable position or document, it could make things easier for unwinding and closing your online accounts. Make sure that your digital executor has your online passwords (or the code to your automated password manager like 1Password), as well as passwords to unlock your digital devices (phone, laptop, etc.) And, if your digital assets are considerable, complex, or highly valuable, talk to an attorney to explore your options of formally adding them to your Will and to your estate plan.