What are digital assets? Including them in your estate plan

When we think of estate planning, we most often think of our physical assets – the family home, vacation properties, investment accounts, retirement savings and valuable heirlooms, for example. Increasingly, however, a lot of what we truly value is located online. In fact, many of our physical assets may be accessed primarily online, but so are things like our family photos, our contact lists and our recurring service accounts.

If you were to die suddenly, would your loved ones be able to access your online accounts? If not, they could be losing out on a huge amount of what you valued. Worse, they might not be able to stop recurring utility payments and subscriptions, and they might need a court order to get to your bank account.

Ideally, you would want your loved ones to have access to these accounts, along with the authority to delete, manage and transfer the accounts after your death. They would like to be able to pay your bills, as necessary, but close accounts that are no longer needed. And, they would like to know how to deal with your online presences.

If you don’t put a plan in place, your loved ones may not have what they need. It’s true that most states have laws granting access to some digital assets upon your death, but many of our accounts, like Facebook, Amazon.com or Gmail, are governed by the company’s terms of service.

Each company has its own terms and rules, including whether a third party is allowed to access the account upon the primary account holder’s death. Here is a roundup of some common terms of service.

Logins and passwords

There are two major ways to include logins and passwords in your estate plan. One is to get a password management tool that uses a single password to manage all your online accounts. If you have a password manager, you can keep a record of that password with your estate planning documents. You will need to update the password as you update it.

The other way is to create a list of all your online accounts along with the logins and passwords. You may wish to include information about how the account is being paid, including the payment method. There are a couple of downsides to this method. One is that it can take a great deal of effort to create and maintain such a document. Another is that simply having such a document is inherently risky. You must take care to ensure it is only located by your executor or trusted people.

Work with your estate planning attorney to protect your digital assets legally and effectively.