Digital Assets and Estate Planning: Are You Prepared?

By Stephen J. Silverberg
New York Elder Law Attorney

With hurricanes and security hacks dominating the headlines, this is a good time to protect your digital assets, both for safekeeping and for estate planning. Whether you were an early adopter and started Tweeting a decade ago or are just now living your life on Facebook, you probably have more digital assets than you know. Social media accounts are just the beginning – you likely also have bank and investment records, emails, frequent flier accounts, music, credit card and other billing accounts and images –these are digital assets requiring protection.

Most people have a system they use to track their user names and passwords, but they are usually indecipherable to anyone but them. The conventional wisdom is the most secure passwords include upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters. However, recent studies reveal the length of a password is more important for security. Storing this information on your computer is risky unless it is encrypted, and even then, it may be at risk if you get hacked

There are several programs, such as Last Pass, that will generate random passwords to provide greater security; however, you still need a master password for access.

Online services store the information in a secure cloud based platform and others rely on a hard-copy list. Unfortunately,  if the information  is not accessible, heirs are left scrambling to figure out where digital assets are. It can end up in a battle involving everyone from the local power and electric company to investment companies to social media platforms to gain control and manage the digital assets.

What should you do?

First, centralize your information. Take the time and create a hard copy list of your accounts, user names, and passwords. If it’s easier, you can copy a recent statement for each account, write your user name and password on it and create a file with the information

Tell your heir(s) the location of the file. Don’t require them to embark on a scavenger hunt.

Check with your estate planning attorney. Does your current will include any mention of who can access and manage your digital assets upon your death or incapacity? If not, make an appointment to add this information to your will and durable power of attorney.

Creating a list of digital assets and passwords is not enough. Just because someone has your user name and password and the ability to access the accounts does not mean they have the legal ability to manage the accounts, or delete them. In recent years there have been several cases where heirs have taken big social media platforms to court to gain control, but this is expensive, time consuming and frustrating. Talk about David versus Goliath – a single user bringing a legal challenge to a massive company like Facebook – that’s not a battle you want your heirs to need to engage in.

Old school methods work too. We offer our clients a small spiral-bound notebook with the word “Passwords” printed in big letters on a bright yellow cover. For some of our clients, this is the best way to gather all their information together.

Whether you are a fan of hard copy lists or cloud based, protecting your digital assets is something you should do before the next big storm hits. If you have questions, call the office at 516-307-1236.

About the Author
Stephen J. Silverberg is nationally recognized as a leader in the areas of estate planning, estate administration, asset preservation planning, and elder law. He is a past president of the prestigious National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), and a founding member and past president of the New York State chapter of NAELA.