Digital Estate Planning

A client called recently and shared the challenging situation she is experiencing. A family member passed the previous month, and she was named the executor. Her relative did not have a list of their online accounts and passwords; they merely had a cheat sheet hinting as to what existed online. My client is now in the awkward position of collecting extensive documentation and obtaining a court order to grant her access to these accounts. Even then, the chances are slim that she will succeed, according to the client’s research. The most depressing fact in this case, is that one of the digital accounts contains valuable intellectual property.

It is important to be aware of all the issues surrounding the digital age within which we live, when doing estate planning services preparing for our executors. In the past, we felt an accomplishment if we executed our estate documents and compiled asset statements for our executors. Today, we face a much more complex set of factors. We now have “digital assets”. What does that mean? We can store photos, projects, hobbies, online personal records, email and all aspects of our life digitally. This can be accessed through the following:


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  • Bill payment accounts such as PayPal and banks.
  • Online business and shopping accounts, i.e., Amazon and eBay.
  • Laptops, smartphones and tablets.
  • Music and books through services such as iTunes, e-books, etc.
  • Email accounts and picture storage such as Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, etc.
  • Document accounts such as health records, Word/Excel files, Google Docs.
  • Domain names, websites, blogs, etc.
  • Social networking accounts such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Granting permissions to these accounts to survivors, agents or attorneys in fact, in advance, can allow them to access these accounts, to transfer them to beneficiaries, close, and monetize them creating significant efficiencies in the event of incapacitation. Considering the current complex web of controls on these digital assets, including federal and state laws and account agreements or contracts, it is helpful to proactively state our wishes with each type of account and provide access to these accounts to avoid losses, theft and litigation.

Awareness, and a plan to deal with digital assets, including making provisions with your attorney in your estate documents and plans, will contribute greatly to having your estate goals accomplished efficiently.

The information contained in this article is not a solicitation to purchase or sell investments. Any information presented is general in nature and not intended to provide individually tailored investment advice. The strategies and/or investments referenced may not be suitable for all investors as the appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives. Investing involves risks and there is always the potential of losing money when you invest. The views expressed herein are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC, Member SIPC, or its affiliates. Julie Clairmont-Shide


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