In this technology age, it's crucial to learn how to manage digital assets. Like millions of people worldwide, you probably have email stored on your personal computer, smart phone or in the cloud. You might have one or more social media accounts. You likely have many photos stored in online photo albums. Email, photos, multimedia, online banking transactions, and social media accounts are just some examples of your digital life or identity. Having a digital life or “digital profile” leads to a natural, important question: What happens to all of that online content when you pass away? You can determine the outcome by learning how to manage digital assets.
As part of our eBook series, Passare™ and Evan Carroll from TheDigitalBeyond™ share our recommendations for how to organize and manage digital assets, how to create your “digital estate”, and how to protect your “digital legacy” after you’ve passed away.
1. What are Digital Assets?
2. Why is it Important to Manage Digital Assets?
3. What Happens to Digital Assets After Your Death?
4. How-to Create Your Digital Legacy
5. How-to Create Your Digital Estate
6. How-to Preserve Your Digital Afterlife
7. How-to Protect Your Digital Estate in Your Will or Estate Plan
8. What Happens to Your Digital Assets if You Become Incapacitated?
9. What Happens to Your Digital Assets if You Don't Have a Will?
10. How Will New Technology Affect Your Digital Legacy?
A. Manage Digital Assets Checklist
B. Digital Assets Sample Will Authorization Language
Digital assets can be organized into several categories:
Your online content forms a rich collection of information that reflects who you are. That makes it valuable. Some digital assets, like PayPal accounts or online businesses, have distinct financial value as well. As you create more photos, movies, email messages, blogs, and make online financial and business transactions, you create a personal and financial online portfolio that becomes a fuller reflection of you. When others respond with email, comments, or photos, they add value and depth to your collection. As your digital presence grows, your online content becomes more valuable to you, and to the people with whom you share it.
Unless you act to preserve it, your digital identity may be at risk of extinction. Until recently, digital content was created and stored without much thought to its long-term availability to others. However, as the shift to digital continues, it is increasingly essential to consider how to manage and preserve your digital assets, and those of your deceased loved ones. The technology for how to manage and preserve your digital afterlife is still evolving.
When you create End of Life documents such as a Will or a Living Trust, you consider how to preserve your identity for future generations by passing on heirlooms, photos, videos and journals, and other assets of financial and emotional value. You can now preserve many of these items online to create your digital estate or digital legacy.
When you pass away, you will leave behind your own digital identity. Passing on your entire digital legacy will become more important as the cultural and technological shift to digital continues, and as your digital content becomes a richer reflection of all aspects of your life.
With technology evolving at such a rapid pace, there is now an opportunity to create a permanent online archive of your life or your digital estate that could exist well beyond your physical life. The Internet can’t make you immortal, but with planning, your d igital legacy could have a rich, lasting afterlife.
Like preserving anything of value, good organization, identification, secure storage, and planning are the keys to creating your digital estate and securing your digital legacy. You can then make informed decisions about your final wishes for your specific digital assets.
To organize your digital assets, follow the steps in this section for each of your digital asset types, including:
Important Note: Providing computer and mobile device access to your digital executor or heir – including physical location, usernames, and passwords - is essential to your digital asset estate planning.
You likely access your digital assets using a variety of desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. These devices serve as master keys to your email, social presence, business, and financial accounts. As you create your digital estate, identify your devices and the content on those devices first.
Begin by making a thorough inventory of your computers, mobile devices, email, social websites, and other important online accounts. List the physical location of each, and provide the name of your intended heir, username and password access, and your final wishes for each asset. For a template to help inventory your assets, go to: www.yourdigitalafterlife.com/resources.
Until recently, most of your personal content was likely stored on your home and/or work devices. Today, more data is stored on the Internet in the cloud. This shift to cloud-based storage services makes locating digital content more challenging if there is no clear inventory to guide your executor or heirs. So list all digital content accounts and sources in your inventory. Allowing access to your personal devices remains essential, since they may contain important files that do not exist anywhere else.
Devices and the digital files on them are two separate things. The files on a single device are part of your digital estate and can be shared with many people. This means that you can separately consider the future owner of the device and the files stored there.
When making your inventory, record to whom you will give your specific digital assets. Your digital executor and/or heir will manage your digital assets and ensure that your final wishes are carried out. In the simplest situation, you have only one heir who is also your digital executor. Be sure to clearly communicate your wishes for your devices and digital content to your digital executor and heirs, so they know it exists and where. Provide access – including the physical location, usernames, and passwords – to all computers and mobile devices.
Important Note: Access to data and preservation are different concepts. Even if your heirs have access to your digital content after you pass away, this does not ensure that it will be preserved in the future.
We recommend that you keep personal files on your personal devices, not on your business computer. Although your employer may allow you to keep personal content on your work device, they may deny your digital executor access to it after your death. Or, they may simply erase the content to prepare the device for another employee.
It is essential to back up your computer and all personal devices to properly safeguard your data. Keeping your digital content in more than one place helps keep it safe.
Storing digital content online can prevent a complete data loss if your hard drive fails, your computer is stolen, or your home destroyed. You can easily automate the backup process to occur regularly and automatically. Back up methods for hard drives and personal devices include using the following:
Important Note: Providing computer and mobile device access to your digital executor or heir – including physical location, usernames, and passwords - is essential to your digital asset estate planning. For a template to help inventory your assets, including any backup drives or services, go to: www.yourdigitalafterlife.com/resources.
The next step in creating your digital estate plan is to decide what instructions you want your digital executor and/or heirs to follow for your specific digital assets. Common choices include:
Finally, you should choose a way to ensure that your final digital asset wishes will be carried out in the event that you pass way. You can select from the following choices:
The technological process for how to preserve your digital afterlife continues to evolve. Here are some of the ways you can preserve your digital assets or the digital afterlife of a deceased loved one:
Important Note: Read the section, “Choosing a Digital Executor” in this eBook for more information on appointing a digital executor, and passing on your digital legacy to your heirs. For a template to help inventory your assets, including any backup drives or services, go to: www.yourdigitalafterlife.com/resources. For more information on current laws affecting digital assets, go to: www.thedigitalestateresource.com.
Limits to Preservation
Preserving digital content has limits. Maintaining it forever in its current state is impractical, given rapidly changing technology. For digital content to remain, you will need someone to act as caretaker or curator of your data to ensure that multiple copies are maintained in current formats that are accessible. The main challenge in curating digital content is not the technical ability, but the human or technological resources, to do so.
Digital files are only as reliable as the physical disks on which they reside. Redundancy and backups are essential to maintain file integrity. Storing multiple copies on separate devices helps keep digital content safe.
Convert older media to help manage changing file formats:
To ensure that your digital content is preserved, you will need someone to either convert it from older-to-newer formats, or to preserve the technology needed to read the older formats.
Suggestions for maintaining your digital content include:
As with preserving and protecting tangible property, you can state your preferences for your specific digital assets in your Will or in an addendum to your current Will or Estate Plan. Then, choose a digital executor or heirs to carry out your final wishes.
Important Note: Providing computer and mobile device access to your digital executor or heir – including physical location, usernames, and passwords - is essential to protecting your digital asset estate.
State Your Final Digital Asset Wishes in Your Will
When stating your final digital asset wishes in your Will or Estate Plan, do the following:
Choose a Digital Executor
Both physical and digital assets need to be curated and cared for over time. Both types remind us of our loved ones and help us preserve their memory. However, without a conscientious curator to protect them, both physical and digital objects would quickly vanish.
The person you choose to be the legal executor of your estate may not have the technical understanding to protect your digital assets. Your digital executor will be a person or online service that you choose to act on your behalf relative to your digital assets after you are gone, and should be able to understand and manage the technical aspects of associated with them. They will also distribute or delete your digital assets according to your wishes.
If your legal executor is capable, consider making that person your digital executor as well. Or, if you choose to name a separate digital executor in your Will, consider adding instructions to direct your legal executor to obtain the help of your digital executor when managing your specific digital assets.
Important Note: The legal executor defined in your Will is the only person with legal authority to settle your physical estate.
Choose Your Heirs
You may choose one or more heirs to whom you will leave your assets. Your heirs are the people who will receive your assets after you pass away. Without your help, they may not even know about your digital content. If you have a simple estate, appoint one person, like a spouse or other family member, to be your legal executor, digital executor, and sole heir.
Common choices for whom to choose as your digital executor or heir include:
It is important to understand that some content on your device(s) may not be transferable to your heirs. Digital Rights Managed (DRM) music is an example of nontransferable content. You bought the rights to listen to the music, not the music itself.
Edit Your Data Collection
When you consider leaving behind your digital legacy, consider that your digital content may be a burden to your heirs in that it may simply be too voluminous to be uniquely valuable. For example, if you leave behind 10,000 photographs, they will have less value to your heirs. Edit, tag your favorites, delete duplicates, and keep the important content separate from the vast collection.
To protect your digital assets in the event you become incapacitated during your life, do the following:
If you do not create a Will or an addendum that specifically addresses your digital assets, your entire estate will be subject to the specific laws of the state where you live at the time of your death. The “Terms of Service” for cloud-based services will apply according to the contract for the specific accounts you held.
Good news is on the horizon for digital estate planning. We can expect greater awareness in the coming years that will address issues like managing changing file formats and limits to preservation. We can also expect new legal and technical standards to be established. Technological research and development are creating new tools to create your digital estate plans, send final email notifications, create online memorials, and secure your digital legacy after your death.
Using current technology, you can only pass on your digital content to your heirs. In the future, we may have the opportunity to create a permanent archive that is relevant for history and future generations to appreciate.
To create and manage your digital estate, we suggest you do the following:
|Identify and make an inventory of your digital content on your personal, remote and cloud accessing devices. Include email, social websites, and other important online accounts.|
|Provide the name of your intended heir, access rights, and your final wishes for each asset. For a template to help inventory your assets, go to: www.yourdigitalafterlife.com/resources.|
|Back up your devices and data. If you use online backup service websites, remember to add these accounts to your inventory list.|
|State your final digital asset wishes in your Will or in a digital addendum to your Will or Estate Plan.|
|Use digital estate planning services, posthumous email services, or ask your digital executor or heirs to carry out your final wishes after your death.|
|Ensure that your loved ones have the permission and access credentials to access the accounts you choose by reviewing your online account sites’ “Terms or Service” for transferring access to others after your death.|
|Communicate your final wishes directly to your loved ones, digital executor, or heirs.|
Power Of Attorney
Digital Assets. My attorney-in-fact shall have (i) the power to access, use and control my digital devices, including but not limited to, desktops, laptops, tablets, peripherals, storage devices, mobile telephones, smartphones, and any similar digital device which currently exists or may exist as technology develops or such comparable items as technology develops for the purpose of accessing, modifying, deleting, controlling or transferring my digital assets, and (ii) the power to access, modify, delete, control and transfer my digital assets, including but not limited to, my emails received, email accounts, digital music, digital photographs, digital videos, software licenses, social network accounts, file sharing accounts, financial accounts, domain registrstions, DNS service accounts, web hosting accounts, tax preparation service accounts, online stores, affiliate programs, other online accounts and similar digital items which currently exist
Wills Your Will should include specific powers to handle digital assets and a definition of digital assets, such as, “Digital Assets. My executor shall have the power to access, handle, distribute and dispose of my digital assets”, as defined below.
“Digital Assets.” “Digital assets” includes files stored on my digital devices, including but not limited to, desktops, laptops, tablets, peripherals, storage devices, mobile telephones, smartphones, and any similar digital device which currently exists or may exist as technology develops or such comparable items as technology develops. The term “digital assets” also includes but is not limited to emails received, email accounts, digital music, digital photographs, digital videos, software licenses, social network accounts, file sharing accounts, financial accounts, domain registrations, DNS service accounts, web hosting accounts, tax preparation service accounts, online stores, affiliate programs, other online accounts and similar digital items which currently exist or may exist as technology develops or such comparable items as technology develops, regardless of the ownership of the physical device upon which the digital item is stored.
Optionally you may want to specify another individual who is more technologically savvy to assist the executor in handling digital assets.
I authorize my executor to engage ___________ to assist in accessing, handling, distributing and disposing of my digital assets.
Finally it may be desirable to reference an external list of digital assets and relevant user names and passwords.
I have prepared a memorandum with instructions concerning my digital assets and their access, handling, distribution and disposition. I direct my executor and beneficiaries to follow my instructions concerning my digital assets.
Important Note: Note: This Digital Assets Sample Authorization language is courtesy of Jean Gordon Carter in collaboration with Evan Carroll and John Romano. It is available for estate planners to include and adapt in their documents. Please go to: http://www.digitalestateresource.com/sample-language/ for more information.
The information contained in this booklet is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be construed as legal advice. For legal advice, consult an attorney. The information contained in this booklet is subject to change and does not purport to be a complete statement of all relevant issues. In certain jurisdictions this may constitute attorney advertising.
From birth to death, life is a series of passages. Passare provides an online service that connects people to trusted End of Life Management experts and resources. With Passare, you can explore, plan and prepare for End of Life Management, simplifying the process while honoring ensuring the specific needs and wishes of you and your family. Passare gives you control over one of life’s most important passages.
Evan Carroll is a user experience designer, author and speaker from Raleigh, NC. He is co-founder of The Digital Beyond, a blog and think tank devoted to digital afterlife and legacy issues. Evan is the author of the book, Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy? (New Riders Press, 2011).
Evan has appeared in numerous media outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, PBS News Hour, Popular Science, Fox News, CNN and The Atlantic. Evan holds MS and BS degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science. www.thedigitalbeyond.com