Estate Planning in the Digital Age

Who gets your Facebook account when you die? What happens to your Twitter? Your Instagram? Your e-mail account? Your Bitcoin? The Digital Age and the advent of Internet- and cloud-based assets have created a new category of estate planning.

Your Internet accounts are your property, and property stored online that has any value requires the same level of protection you give to other tangible (e.g., houses, cars, stocks) and intangible (e.g., patents, copyrights, goodwill) assets.

You Have More Digital Assets Than You Think

Cutting-edge technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace while estate planning and probate laws struggle to keep up. As a result, some companies responsible for managing the platforms for digital assets have sought to fill the void. 

For example, Facebook has a private user agreement that allows you to designate someone to "inherit" your account after your death. You can state whether you want the page preserved as a memorial to your life or whether you want the account deleted. Google and other sites have similar agreements, but the vast majority of websites do not offer this option.

Similarly, most banks allow you to transfer your bank account, along with online access, by naming a "pay on death" beneficiary. But there are many other assets that may not offer the same ability to control their disposition at your death, such as:

  • Online financial accounts (credit card, brokerage, retirement plan, insurance)
  • Online retail accounts and apps
  • Cryptocurrency
  • Digital wallets and prepaid apps
  • Social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram)
  • Blogs and websites
  • E-mail accounts and text messages
  • Phone passcode
  • Software, music, movie, and television show collections (Netflix, iTunes, HBO)
  • Photo and video-sharing sites (Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo)

Digital estate planning is a relatively new area of law and regulations on the topic are sparse and incomplete. Oklahoma has laws mandating court orders or provisions in a will that allow executors to access e-mails, blogs, and other social networking accounts.

However, this authorization applies only to personal representatives, so other fiduciaries (such as an attorney-in-fact appointed through a Power of Attorney) may be limited only by the private terms-of-service agreements required by various companies hosting your digital accounts.

Be Proactive in Protecting Your Privacy and Legacy

Just as you would pass on assets to your loved ones, you should ensure that your family or other designated representatives can open your online accounts for various reasons, including:

  • Accessing valuable assets, including bank and investment accounts
  • Ensuring all bills are paid and all subscriptions are canceled
  • Downloading personal property such as photos and videos posted online
  • Preserving data and other memories
  • Removing an online presence to minimize reminders of the deceased
  • Deleting private data to prevent identity theft

Digital estate planning is not as simple as including screen names and passwords in your will. In fact, because wills are made public when admitted to probate, putting that information in your will means that your financial or social media accounts could be at risk when your estate enters probate.

(Read our 5 Tips to Create Your Digital Estate Plan.)

A better practice to create a digital estate plan could be to list the information in a separate document but refer to it in your will. You can give your normal executor the power to access and dispose of these accounts, or you can name a separate individual as a "digital executor" to serve that purpose. Whatever your desire, it is important to discuss the matter with a qualified estate planning attorney before making any decisions.

Take Action Sooner Rather Than Later

No one likes to think about death, but — like social media — it is a part of life. Contact the Oklahoma City estate planning attorneys at Postic & Bates today for a free, no-obligation consultation to determine how to incorporate your digital assets into your estate plan.

We also encourage you to download our FREE Estate Planning Guide with over 70 pages of information and answers about the estate planning process. Simply click below to download.

[As with all our posts, the contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are subject to our site-wide disclaimer.]