From our financial accounts and tax records to our music and photograph libraries, more and more of our assets are finding homes online. When we die, however, our online accounts and passwords do not necessarily die with us.
The term "digital assets" refers to assets and information stored or accessed online or as a file on a computer or mobile device. Some digital assets have monetary value, while others have personal or sentimental value. The digital asset realm includes not just bank and brokerage accounts, but also email accounts, blogs, Facebook pages, Tumblr accounts, photograph, book and music libraries the list goes on with new additions all the time.
We spend a significant amount of time using the Internet to manage and enhance our lives. We rely on computers and mobile devices to keep us organized and connected. However, many of us give little thought to what happens to our digital assets upon our incapacity or death. In this digital age, making provisions for the protection and administration of those assets is an integral part of a complete estate plan.
Few Laws Address Digital Assets
States have been slow to enact laws addressing the issues associated with the administration of digital assets. A few states, namely Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island, have passed laws granting an individual's representative the right to access and manage certain digital accounts. Such laws vary widely in scope.
Pennsylvania does not currently have laws specifically addressing the management of digital assets when an individual becomes incapacitated or dies. In 2012, state Representative Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, introduced HB 2580, which would amend Title 20 (Decedents, Estates and Fiduciaries) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes by granting the personal representative of a decedent's estate the power to take control of, conduct, continue or terminate the decedent's account with a social networking website, microblogging or short message service website or email service website. The bill was referred to the judiciary committee in August 2012, and may be reintroduced in the 2013-14 legislative session.
Other efforts are in the works as well. For example, in 2012, the Uniform Law Commission appointed a Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Committee charged with the task of drafting a uniform law that addresses a fiduciary's right to access, maintain, control and dispose of an individual or decedent's digital assets.
Suggestions for Dealing With Digital Assets
Until there is further guidance, there are a number of steps to take with respect to online accounts and assets:
1. Make an inventory.
When creating or updating an estate plan, it is common to write a list of tangible and intangible assets so that the executor has the information necessary to administer the estate. A similar list should be created for digital assets. Account information, website addresses, log-in names, passwords and answers to secret questions will assist the personal representative in marshaling these assets.
The digital asset inventory should, of course, be maintained in a safe place. Entrusting the inventory to a friend or family member for safe keeping may initially sound like a good idea. However, passwords and other confidential information may fall into the wrong hands or be misused. It may be best to keep the list in a safe deposit box or other secure place that is readily accessible, because the list will need to be updated periodically as passwords change and new accounts are added.