The digital estate

I was on vacation with my family this past week. Each morning as I had my coffee, I was amused to watch my father reading the newspaper on his tablet, my mother reading a book on her Kindle, my husband and I checking e-mails on our smart phone and laptop, and my school-age children playing games and listening to music on their iPod Touch devices. Just a few years ago, who would have thought? From ages 5 to 67, we were all “connected” in our daily life, even on vacation.

One of my upcoming projects is to visit a local employer who is offering his staff wills, trusts and guardianships as an employee benefit. Since we are giving a seminar to his employees, we offered that he should also feel free to invite spouses, valued customers, or anyone he wanted to extend an invitation. I love educating people and dispelling the many myths and folklore out there on these basic issues. Why not fill up the room with anyone who should benefit?

The vacation scene got me thinking about a topic not generally covered when people prepare estate plans: their digital estate. So much of our lives is electronic –photos, books, bill payments, bank statements, taxes, and business records that are probably on your own hard drive, flash drive or somewhere “in the cloud.” How will your executors and trustees access these files? It is important to keep a record of your online account numbers, usernames and passwords. This is important for both work and personal accounts. You should also review the default terms of important online accounts to understand if they will be frozen or deleted upon your death. If so, you may want to have a backup of critical information.

You should make it easy for others to attend to your accounts if you are not around. Should someone be able to view your e-mail if you are incapacitated or die? If not, then what should happen to the e-mail account? If so, who should have access?

Should your blog, website or social media stay alive after you? Should they disappear or be used as a memorial legacy?

We are often advised to update our documents when there are major life events: marriage, birth, death, and divorce. However, the truth is that our lives are dynamic and change in small increments, not just with major events.

Our world is ever-evolving and the nature of our assets changes over time. If you have not addressed these issues in your estate plan, I encourage you to take the opportunity to revisit and update your critical documents to include the electronic side of your life.

You may also want to take the opportunity to control the legacy you leave behind. There may be some things you do not want your survivors to learn about. As we all have a right to privacy during our lifetime, we have a right to privacy after our death as well.

There are also available many legacy planning applications and software that can enable you to leave a message to be delivered to your loved ones after you pass, one final message to say the things we all wish we had one last chance to say. Technology allows us to do one last thing. It really is amazing how the law has changed how we handle wills and estate planning in the nearly two decades I have been practicing. I’m curious how it will evolve over the next two decades.