A riddle: What is entirely yours, but owned by someone else?

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Answer: Your password.

Believe it or not, you don’t own your password. It’s the property of the parent site. Even though the content belongs to you, your Facebook, Gmail, and OneDrive accounts are, legally speaking, owned by Facebook, Google, or Microsoft and controlled under the terms of those user agreements to which we are all forced to agree when we sign up for those services. If you actually stop and read those agreements, you may be surprised to learn that accessing someone else’s account, even with that person’s permission, is forbidden. Almost all your digital assets are controlled this way.

So what does this mean for estate planning? In short, it means you don’t have the right to transfer ownership of your digital assets. This creates an issue when someone passes away and their loved one wants to access a digital asset that might contain important information or memories. For some heartbreaking examples, take a look at this Microsoft support thread.

This Is a Big Problem

We all have a digital footprint consisting of sites and online accounts we have given our identifying information, often without even realizing it. Do you know how many online accounts you have? The average American has more than 100 online accounts. These can be related to everything from airline miles to photo storage and community news postings. Fear not. Even if you only remember a fraction of your digital footprint, there are tools you can use to track down all the accounts you’ve created online. This post directs you through the process of researching saved passwords through your browser. This one has a detailed list of the most commonly used sites and directions how to delete them. You can also search your email for the terms “Confirm your email” or “Unsubscribe.” This will help you find any sites you’ve signed up with using your email and password.

It’s easy to see how having so much information online could create problems after someone passes away. Children may want their deceased parent’s family photos, but don’t have the right to access them from Google Photos, Flickr, Snapfish, or Instagram. If one spouse has an Amazon Prime account, it won’t necessarily transfer to the survivor. And many people rely on online sites to manage their finances. Accounting apps like Mint, TurboCash, and Quickbooks are especially common. Access to a deceased spouse’s or parent’s account could be an important part of their estate administration.

A Will Is Not Enough

We have blogged before about protecting your digital assets. To add complexity to an already problematic situation, many of these online accounts have their own standards and policies. Gmail’s terms of service are not identical to Yahoo’s, even though both are email applications. Moreover, the law has not caught up with technology in every state. There are areas where tension between privacy rights and accessibility have created strange policies. In some cases, specifying in your Financial Power of Attorney that your Agent has authority over your digital assets will not guarantee access. Some companies will refuse to accept the document, especially if it contradicts their individual terms of service. (Terms that they required you to sign when you established your account.)

Before you decide to simply delete your digital footprint, you need to know something important: not all online accounts can be deleted. Just Delete Me is one online resource designed to eradicate extraneous accounts. It has a directory of online sites ranked according to how difficult they are to delete. There are multiple sites that are ranked “Impossible.” The account can be inactivated or put into a dormant phase, but it will still exist under your identifying information.

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How To Protect Your Digital Assets

The good news is that there is a way to store, protect, and share your digital assets. In the past few years, several companies have developed technologies to assist individuals in managing their online footprint. LastPass is one such tool.  It stores the passwords you generate for each account and encrypts them. This enables them to be stored in an online vault that provides easy access from any device. Premium users can also opt for emergency access and a family plan that allows password storage for shared accounts as well as monitoring of minors.

For even more peace of mind, you can look into the Directive Communications Systems network. DCS provides organization of digital and traditional accounts for storage and protection against identity theft. At the time of your passing, DCS can memorialize, transfer, or delete your digital assets without hassle. The emotional relief this provides to your loved ones at their most vulnerable time is priceless. At prices that compete with similar programs while offering more services, DCS will work with your estate plan to ensure the right people have the tools they need to properly execute your wishes.

Digital assets are increasing exponentially, even among individuals who rarely use the internet. People often have social media and image sharing accounts that are rich in sentimental value rather than monetary worth. Digital Asset Management is not just for large companies storing their customer’s financial data. It’s invaluable for everyone who cares that their personal information is protected, in life and after death.

If you live in Colorado and would like to speak with a Denver estate planning attorney about preserving and transferring your digital assets, contact us today to find out how our comprehensive estate planning process can give you peace of mind and protect what you have acquired throughout your life.