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Digital assets: How can they be addressed in your estate plan?

It's clear that an increasing portion of our lives are now being lived and documented online (you are reading this blog, after all). Most of us have at least one email account, and many of us use social media sites. It's also common to own digital music, often in the form of iTunes downloads.

What happens to all of these digital assets when we pass away? The short answer is: It's complicated. Access to a loved one's online accounts is an issue of privacy and, in many cases, an issue of inheritance rights. Consider how many family pictures, emails and other memorabilia are stored in the cloud. Unfortunately, there are very few laws to provide guidance on whether and how digital assets can be passed on. For this and other reasons, you might need to address digital assets as part of your larger estate planning strategy.

To begin with, you may want to designate someone to have access to and control over your online accounts after death. This could be the executor of your estate or a fiduciary. You could name this person in your will and provide a list of account numbers, User IDs and passwords to your online accounts.

Next, you should take the time to understand what each account's "terms of service are." Some email providers and social media sites have specific policies related to deceased users and fiduciary access; others don't. Researching each policy can be a pain, but it may be worth it to ensure that your assets can be accessed by the person you have designated.

Finally, discuss digital assets with your estate planning attorney. Although this is still largely uncharted territory, your attorney may be able to help you document your wishes in such a way as to avoid legal snags later on.

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