Taking precautions so digital assets will not go to the grave with you

Increasingly, people in Massachusetts and elsewhere are being advised to take into account their digital assets as part of their estate planning.

Today's senior citizens are increasingly technologically savvy. Recently, the Pew Research Center observed that six in 10 seniors now go online and just under half are broadband users. Affluent and well-educated seniors frequently go online. Among seniors with an annual household income of $75,000 or more, 90 percent go online and 82 percent have broadband at home. Given that many of today's seniors are tech savvy, many of them may well have valuable digital assets that they should take into account for estate planning purposes.

Digital assets include online virtual reality games, photo albums stored in the Cloud, emails and social media website accounts. Digital assets also encompass online banking and investment accounts. USA Today published an article wherein it was noted that over half of all Americans now bank online and 32 percent use mobile phones to bank. The Internet is also where most Americans go in order to find out how many credit card rewards points they have accumulated. However, given that we live in an increasingly paperless world, we need to think about how our beneficiaries will be able to access our various online financial accounts-and the assets they hold-after our passing. Creditcards.com observes that ignorance of a decedent's online financial assets could be costly since assets could be lost forever if one's beneficiaries have no idea in which financial institution the assets are maintained.

The potential problem of locating digital assets is illustrated by last year's decision in Ajemian v. Yahoo!. There, co-administrators of the estate of their deceased brother wanted access to the emails their brother wrote and received in order to help identify and locate assets belonging to the estate. Suit was filed when Yahoo, the email provider, proved uncooperative. Unfortunately, the Massachusetts Appeals Court did not reach a decision on the issue of whether the estate owned the emails. The court found that this was an important issue which needed to be further developed during the course of a trial. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the facts giving rise to Ajemian v. Yahoo! suggest that one may wish to take precautions in order to avoid a situation where those administering their estate are left in the dark as to the existence and location of digital assets.

Planning suggestions

Creditcards.com suggests that people should consider taking the following steps to insure that digital assets can be easily located.

  • Keep a snail mail trail by electing to receive paper statements so your heirs will know about your accounts from mail delivery.
  • Consolidate your financial accounts or move your assets to a smaller number of banks so they will be easier to keep track of. Some people have certificates of deposit at over 40 different banks.
  • Make lists of account information, passwords and security questions and answers so they will be readily available to those who administer your estate after your passing.
  • Place the lists of passwords and account information in a safe place with restricted access such as a safety deposit box.

Seeking legal guidance

Do not let valuable assets go to the grave with you that you fully intended to leave to a loved one. An attorney with experience at handling Massachusetts estate planning matters can discuss with you the types of digital assets you have and offer you advice on how to pass on those assets after you die. If you already have a will in place, but did not take into account your digital assets, it might be a good time to revisit your estate planning goals.

Keywords: estate planning, digital assets