Managing your digital legacy

by Brenda Lee Johnson, Office of Gift Planning

Over the last several decades, many of us have quietly accumulated a collection of digital materials ranging from email and social media accounts to photos, videos, and music. Much of our personal data has sentimental value, but some, like domain names and in­tellectual property, has real value. What will happen to your digital assets if you become incapacitated or die?

State laws and regulations in this area are growing, but it’s a mistake to assume that the management and transfer of your digital assets will parallel that of traditional assets like real estate or personal property. Com­panies that store your information may hold the keys to some or all of your digital assets. Without deliberate action, access to some or all of these assets may be left in limbo, even if your wishes are spelled out in a will.

Here are a few tips on how to organize your digital assets and plan for a smooth transition:

Make a list and keep it updated. Take inventory of the computer hardware you own and important digital files, log­in details, and passwords, so authorized individuals can easily access them. If you decide to grant explicit permission to others, provide complete instructions for accounts or programs, and include answers to security questions where required. Explain how you would like each asset to be managed or dis­tributed. For example, you may prefer that treasured photos be shared with family and that your personal blog be downloaded and preserved, but that your Twitter and Facebook accounts be disabled and deleted.

Understand the terms of service and ownership rights with each digital service provider. Most of us skim over the fine print when signing up for an online account or service. But federal and state privacy laws and terms-of-service agree­ments may delay or completely restrict others’ access to your accounts after your death. For media you created, like photos, some provid­ers have tools that allow you to designate an individual who can access accounts, but most do not. And if your personal files exist only in cloud storage, they risk being lost forever due to restrictions on unauthorized use by another party.

Talk to an attorney. Some states have enacted laws to bridge access to these possessions for named fiduciaries carrying out their duties. But governance in this area may vary, so consult a professional for help with legal issues that may arise. Your attorney can craft deliberate consent in your estate documents to allow an executor or legacy contact to handle your data. If you prefer, you can restrict some or all of your assets to remain private.

Find a safe, accessible place to store your instructions. Keep digital records alongside other important documents, such as your will, powers of attorney, and insurance. Make sure your executor and/or attorney knows where you keep key papers.

If you have a traditional estate plan in place, now is the time to consider an update to ad­dress the final settlement of your digital as­sets. Be aware of policy changes, and under­stand your role in facilitating or preventing the transfer of your property to others.