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How does estate planning impact digital assets?

Even for those Minnesotans who have tried to avoid it, almost everyone has some kind of digital presence whether it be email, online photo storage, or social media. These are important assets that can be easily missed when creating an estate plan and can cause issues during probate litigation.

When a person dies and leaves behind a digital presence, those assets that are not included in an estate plan can be lost forever. Family and heirs can have a hard time tracking down all of the deceased's accounts. Also, any account out there has the risk of being hacked. It can be hard for families to access these accounts, as the websites are often governed by user agreements and can cause problems in probate.

There are three approaches as to how online accounts are handled after a death. First, some online accounts give users the ability to communicate their wishes for how their account should be handled in the event of their death. Second, if the account does not let a user set their preferences, the user's will or trust will prevail. Third, if there isn't an online option or a will or trust, then the account will be handled using the terms of service. This usually means that only the user has access to the account.

In order to ensure a digital presence does not go away after a person's death, there are a number of things that can be done. First, an inventory of a person's online access should be created. This should include the name of websites used, user ids, and passwords. Second, an individual can use a password manager to store passwords and share that information with the estate executor. A password manager can store all of an online site's information. Digital assets can be included in the estate documents, including the specific intent a person has for their online accounts. An executor should be chosen carefully and with specific details as to what they should do with the online accounts. These individuals should be given limited and specific authority over the online access.

Source: MarketWatch, "How to include your digital assets in your estate plan", Andrea Coombes, Aug. 17, 2016

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