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There's no question that it's unpleasant to think about our own mortality. Despite death being a certitude, around half of American adults don't have a will, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.
Creating an estate plan not only ensures your wishes are followed, but makes life far easier for your loved ones when you pass. It's important to have traditional estate planning documents, such as a will or trust, but as we all manage an increasing amount of our lives online, it's also smart to plan for what happens to your digital accounts. Since you don't own most digital accounts, they don't go through your will like assets you do own.
A digital estate plan is a method for organizing your online information to ensure your loved ones can access your accounts and follow your wishes when you pass away. It can be added into existing estate planning documents or created as a separate, stand-alone document.
What Is a Digital Estate?
Your digital estate consists of all of your virtual and electronic accounts and assets. For example, your social media profiles, online bank account, emails on your laptop and photos saved on your phone.
It's different from a traditional estate plan, which typically includes:
- A will, which outlines who receives your financial and physical assets and valuables (think stock shares, homes, heirloom jewelry). It can also include directions for charitable donations and name guardians for your children.
- A living trust, which establishes a trust for your assets and allows your loved ones to avoid the time-consuming probate process when you die.
- A living will, which indicates your preferences for medical decisions, such as whether to be taken off life support or donate organs.
- A health care power of attorney, which appoints someone to make your medical decisions if you're unable to do so. It can be combined with a living will as an advance directive or medical directive, and it can provide additional information such as burial preferences.
- A financial power of attorney, which appoints someone to handle financial decisions if you become incapable of doing so.
Meanwhile, we're all amassing digital estates that generally aren't covered in a traditional estate plan. Dying without a plan leaves things to chance; those left behind may not be able to access your digital accounts or make the decisions you would have wanted.
If you already have a financial power of attorney, you can add language to designate that individual as your "digital fiduciary" to also be in charge of handling your digital estate. Or you can designate a "digital executor" specifically to handle your digital information and accounts. Getting your wishes in writing is the best way to outline how to access your digital life and explain your preferences.
What's Included in a Digital Estate Plan?
You can decide what you want to be included in your digital estate plan. The purpose is to provide your loved ones with 1) information on what accounts you have, 2) how to access them and 3) what actions you want to be taken.
Here are some examples of accounts that could be included in a digital estate plan:
- Social media profiles
- Email accounts
- Online accounts for all bank accounts, credit cards, loans, utilities and other financial or shopping accounts (such as PayPal and eBay)
- Online accounts with value, such as airline loyalty programs
- Photos, files and data from your phone and computer
- Digital memberships or presence in online communities such as listservs or forums
- Content you've written, such as blogs
- Digital licenses you may own, such as for stock photos or music
- Websites or online shops you own or run
Digital assets technically also include hardware, such as computers, tablets, phones, external storage drives and digital cameras, though if these items have monetary value, they may also be considered part of your traditional estate. However, it's still wise to include a separate plan on what to do with the digital data and assets on your devices.
How to Create a Digital Estate Plan
Ready to make a plan for protecting your digital assets? Here's how to get started:
- Decide where it will live. Whether you created your estate planning documents yourself or through a lawyer, you can update them to include your digital plan. You can add a digital assets provision to both your will and financial power of attorney that refers to a separate document with the actual information. For the information itself, you can create a Google Doc or spreadsheet and give access to a few close family members, or provide a hard copy to your estate attorney or the person you plan to designate as your digital executor if you're concerned about hacking. If you don't yet have traditional estate planning documents, have them drawn up and include your digital estate plan.
- List your digital assets and how to access them. Include things like your phone's passcode, in addition to the usernames, passwords and associated email addresses or phone numbers someone would need to access your online accounts.
- Request an action for each. Explicitly state your wishes for each item listed. For example, do you want the photos from your phone to be saved and sent to your children? Do you want your Twitter account deleted? Do you want your blog to stay up?
- Close old and unused accounts. If you have old accounts open that you no longer use or want, use this as an opportunity to proactively clean house and leave fewer accounts in your estate plan.
- Let your loved ones know. To reduce any surprise or confusion, inform your family members who will be handling your digital estate that you've created a digital estate plan with instructions on how to access and handle everything.
- Keep it updated. Make sure to periodically check and update your digital estate plan and list of login information, since you may change passwords and open and close accounts over time.
It's Never Too Early
When you're in your 20s, it may feel strange to create an estate plan, digital or otherwise. But the reality is, life is full of curveballs, and it's not morbid to start thinking ahead—it's prudent.
Whether you're creating a traditional estate plan, digital estate plan or one that encompasses both, the earlier you do so, the better. The sooner you start organizing this information and indicating your wishes, the easier it'll be for you to update it as life changes—and the more prepared you and your loved ones will be.