The Digital Estate
“…and I leave my jewelry, china and iPhone to…” Wait, what? Why would you need to list your iPhone in your will? Wills have been in existence since the recording of the written word and can be traced to ancient Roman and Greek law. The “Last Will and Testament” is a legal declaration by which a person names one or more person to manage his/her estate...
“…and I leave my jewelry, china and iPhone to…” Wait, what? Why would you need to list your iPhone in your will? Wills have been in existence since the recording of the written word and can be traced to ancient Roman and Greek law. The “Last Will and Testament” is a legal declaration by which a person names one or more individuals to manage his/her estate and provides for the distribution of property upon death. “Will” historically was limited to real property and “testament” applied to personal property, though today a will generally encompasses both.
While at a recent trust and estate conference, the topic of digital property was brought up and it got me thinking about what that could mean in terms of helping a personal representative navigate through the process of finding the assets, obtaining proper documentation to verify value and then tracking those assets until they are disposed of or distributed to the beneficiaries. In the past, important documents could usually be found in safety deposit boxes, file cabinets, safes or even shoe boxes. Now with the ease of technology and the desire to “go green”, many documents are often held in a digital format such as on a computer hard drive, CD’s or on in the “cloud”. For example, many banks and brokerage firms are offering or pushing for monthly statements to be delivered online versus sending out the traditional paper one.
Even for those that have done estate planning, prepared wills and appointed personal representatives have you considered how easy it will be to carry out your wishes? Would the personal representative know where your financial information is located and have access to it? Keeping a list of accounts, login names and passwords in a “safe” place will help ease the cost and time it would take to try to track them down via other means. Due to the strict laws for the protection of privacy some accounts could even be impossible to access without legal intervention.
Most wills of the past have the generic term “personal property” listed which provides for the general intention to lump all remaining assets not specifically listed to be distributed to one or more heirs. But what if a computer, tablet or phone is included in that personal property and contains all the vital information needed to access the decedent’s bank accounts, advisor contact information and copies of legal documents? If the personal representative is not one of the heirs receiving that property, or part of the immediate family, it could be extremely difficult for them to perform their duties in an efficient manner.
Consider taking another look at your will, start thinking about where all your “digital assets” are and if you are a potentially the person to be named as a personal representative, begin thinking about how you will help manage and carry out a loved-one’s last wishes in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
This last spring while traveling through Spain on a band trip, my 15 year old daughter lost her phone. Every effort was made to try and find it, but to no avail. At the time and sometimes even now she still laments that “her life” was on her phone. Is your life on your phone?
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