Jim had slowly gotten into the digital revolution. He bought a desktop in 1984 and shortly after, acquired an AOL email account. Over the years, he upgraded his desktop and later found that a laptop was more convenient.
He had an account with his bank and slowly began doing most of his transactions online, with direct deposit of his paycheck and automatic bill payments.
Photos were saved on his computer and later on the iPhone he bought. He established a Facebook account to stay in touch with friends and a LinkedIn account for business purposes.
Jim had accounts at online stores, enjoyed listening to books on his audible account and studying various translations of the Bible on another account.
He kept up with his favorite sports teams with various sports news accounts and team accounts on both his laptop and his iPhone.
What Jim didn’t realize, before he suddenly died of a heart attack, was that he owned digital assets and they should have been included in his estate plans. There were Internet accounts that no one was aware of or could access because he hadn’t planned for those assets in his estate plans.
In addition, Jim had not shared his account logins or passwords with any of his family. Those logins and passwords were safe and secure in a password protected “app” and he hadn’t shared that password with anyone else, either.
On Jim’s death, the personal representative Jim had named in his estate plans was in the dark about his digital and many other assets because he could not access Jim’s logins or passwords. Valuable time and money had to be expended for a computer technician’s services, dealings with his bank and other vendors with which Jim had had a digital relationship, and the court system in efforts to determine, gain access to and administer his digital and unintentionally hidden assets.
Once finally accessed by his family, long after Jim’s funeral, his email account provided a great deal of information about his assets. Emails he had received confirmed logins and password changes he had made to accounts owned prior to his death. They revealed much about his friendships and interests, and also contained many photos he had treasured.
Jim’s family needed that information. It was important to discover Jim’s assets, to terminate accounts, and recover records of accounts they had not been aware existed. More importantly, it enabled them to retrieve memories of Jim and the contributions he had made to their lives.
Jim’s story is fictional, but it demonstrates the importance of digital estate planning. The story shows that we need to be stewards of our digital assets. As with other assets, the estate planning process for digital assets begins with making an inventory. The inventory should include not only a description of the asset, but also the information you have about rights regarding those assets and their transferability to others. You only have a lifetime lease on the iTunes music library, and the same is true of some other subscription services.
You will need to include information regarding how to obtain access to those assets, logins and passwords, both for those you own and those you only have a contractual right to access during your lifetime.
With that information, you will be prepared to discuss with your estate-planning attorney plans you can make for the administration of those assets should you become incapacitated, and for the administration and transfer of those assets to your loved ones at the time of your death. Your planning now will enable those you love to enjoy those impossible-to-replace personal memories when you are no longer able to be here to share them.
John M. Hardin is general counsel and corporate secretary for the Missouri Baptist Foundation.