What Happens to My E-mail and Other Digital Assets When I Die?

August 25, 2014

On August 12, 2014, Delaware became the first state to pass a law which gives a person’s estate access to all of that person’s digital assets after his or her death.  Although some states have passed laws giving heirs access to some digital assets, Delaware is the first state to enact legislation this broad.   Currently, Wisconsin has no law addressing digital assets.  Therefore, Wisconsin residents are bound by the policies of each company, many of which do not allow access without the owner’s direct authorization or a court order.  It is essential that digital assets are specifically addressed in your estate plan.

As of January 2014, 71% of all adults who are online use the social networking site Facebook, according to a recent Pew Research survey.  As of August 2012, 46% of adult internet users post photos or videos that they themselves have taken.  Planning for digital assets such as social networking profiles and digital photographs and videos can be easily overlooked in an estate plan, but these statistics show that digital assets are becoming increasingly important. 

One of the most valuable things a person can do when it comes to digital assets is to take out a piece of paper (or excel spreadsheet) and create a list of all of his or her digital assets.  At first glance, one may think that he does not have many digital assets. However, you may have more than you think when you consider that digital assets come in many forms, such as:

  • Photographs, Videos, and Documents on your Computer, Tablet or Phone
  • Photographs, Videos, and Documents in the Cloud such as Google Drive
  • Online Accounts such as Shutterfly, EBay, Amazon, or PayPal
  • Software like Quicken or Photoshop
  • Social Networking Profiles like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn
  • Digital Music or Movie Libraries such as ITunes
  • E-mail Accounts

Not only are some of these assets things you may want to address as part of your estate plan, digital assets can also include information that can help your personal representative compile an inventory of your other property.  Many people now receive their financial information through paperless statements or online accounts without duplicate paper copies.  You may also want to include on your list information about where you can find important records such as investment account statements, tax returns, bank statements, checkbook registers, loan records, and credit card bills.  Include where the asset is located, usernames, and passwords and as with any sensitive information, make sure to protect the list.  The simplest way is to create a password protected excel spreadsheet or you could even store this list in a safe deposit box.

Once you have compiled this information, an estate planning attorney can help you plan by determining who you want to handle these assets upon your death, making sure that person has the information and authority to access your digital assets when needed, and even providing what you ultimately want to happen to those assets.  At Clair Law Offices, we specifically address digital assets in our client’s estate planning documents because we understand  that these assets can have significant financial and emotional value to our clients.