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Protecting Your Virtual Estate

How does one open an invisible drawer or unlock something with an intangible key? How can you give away something that exists in the clouds? The digital world that we live in causes some very interesting results when a loved one passes away and assets are intangible.
As more and more of our lives are put online, estate planners are contending with how to advise clients to secure and transfer their virtual estates. The body of nontangible, digital assets people create and store on their computers and the internet is growing by leaps and bounds. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 36% of adults over age 45 now do their banking on the Web and millions of people store some financial records online, which are often locked behind countless user names and passwords. Few, if any, clients of estate planners consider digital assets in their wills. Such an oversight can result in real-world losses to beneficiaries. Many people have become “digital hoarders” collecting a nearly endless number of accounts and data. Including, multiple email accounts, numerous social networking accounts, and online bill paying and banking accounts. Like cleaning out the house of a hoarder, the task of locating and retrieving all of this data is not small or easy. A paperless life is a reality for many users.
……The digital world is a global phenomenon that affects billions of people around the world every day. As a point of reference – Facebook adds 3 million new users every day, has 901 million users total and 526 million active daily users; Twitter maintains 500 million users and reaches
150 million users daily; and Pinterest hit 10 million unique visitors faster than any independent site in history.

In the past when a love one died, the survivors could locate their documents and prized possessions, such as a Will, financial statements and personal belongings by searching the safe deposit box, looking in the desk drawer or redirecting the mail with the U.S. Post Office. Today, asset collection is very different now because many of these treasured items that used to have physical presence are contained within computers or virtual archives in the cloud. In our mobile society, it can be very difficult to locate an asset, or once located, to gain access without a password.

With the basic understanding that digital assets are located throughout computer domains, much if not all of the information on your computer, phone and tablet is a digital asset. Most digital assets are accounts and services with licenses that will expire upon death leaving nothing to be distributed. Surprising to many users, the answer is that “no” we cannot and do not own our digital assets.

The greatest problem for both estate planners and clients alike is how to properly prepare for what will happen to their digital asses after their death. So the following will help you plan for digital assets:

1. Identify Key Accounts
2. Safely Provide Access
3. Maintain Information Often
4. Consider Digital Estate Services
5. Contact your Estate Planning Attorney

The process of planning for and protecting your digital assets can be complex because this area of the law is new to all of us, yet is based in very traditional laws that do not quite fit the current situation. However, leaving our loved ones with varied accounts and irretrievable information is not the legacy that any of us wish to leave behind. By planning ahead, you are taking steps to protect what matters in your digital life.

Call today to schedule a consultation!

Linda M. Strohschein
Attorney at Law

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