Include digital assets in estate planning

Facebook spent years figuring out what to do with user accounts when a user died. On Thursday, they offered a solution. You can now designate a “legacy contact” — someone who can post messages to your timeline, respond to friend requests and update your profile picture and cover photo — after you are deceased.

You decide if your contact can also download an archive of photos and posts, but that person will not be able to log in as you or see any private messages. You could also just tell the company to delete your account when you die. Previously, Facebook offered memorial accounts which were viewable but could not be accessed.

The new policy highlights the question of how we handle our digital assets when we die and it is something more attorneys are guiding their clients through as they create estate plans.

Alexandra Smyser, a California-based estate planning attorney at the law offices of Donald P. Schweitzer, says she began writing provisions for digital assets into trusts about two years ago. “I wasn’t doing it for everybody then, but now I am including it for everyone,” she says. “I do an assignment of all of your digital assets — computer, smartphone, Facebook account — to your trust and in the trust there is a directive in the trustee powers.”

For individuals who make a living in the digital realm, this can be managed as an actual financial asset assigned to a trust with someone appointed to manage those things after your passing. For everyone else, it can get a bit confusing.

Companies are still working out their policies and state laws are only just being established. Last year, Delaware passed a law stating that anyone acting on behalf of an estate must be granted access to that individual’s accounts, Smyser says. Google’s policy has been to shut down your accounts if they are notified of your death.

Bank accounts are more complicated, but if you have set automatic payments, giving someone your password and information on how things should be paid in the event of your death would go a long way in avoiding the courts, Smyser says.

Smyser recommends that her clients keep an ongoing list of account and equipment passwords and create a directive on how they want each of the assets to be handled.

It is important to consider creating these plans for anyone 18 or older, particularly since young adults are likely to have quite a few digital assets. And as always, you must appoint someone you trust to these important tasks, Smyser said.

“You can trivialize it,” she says, “What do I care? It’s my Facebook account. But part of what you are doing is making life easier for your loved ones.”

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