The last 15 or so years has been a sea change for how we go about our day-to-day lives. Many basic institutions have transitioned to digital-first or digital-only environments, including banks, investment platforms, and utilities companies. As more and more of life is conducted exclusively in the online space, our digital assets continue to multiply.
Identifying and accessing all of these digital assets will be a critical job for the executor of your estate. And yet, despite the growing primacy of the digital space, far too many people overlook their digital assets during the estate planning process. A simple Digital Asset Catalog is quick and easy fix to this problem (Download our free Digital Asset Catalog).
In late-December of 2020, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece by Joanna Stern, which offers a decent blueprint for tackling this overload of digital assets. She writes that you should:
- Take inventory of your digital assets,
- Add a digital executor to your will,
- Add digital heirs to your accounts,
- Plan to pass on your passwords.
Pro Tip: There is a fifth point too: Record your stories. You can record, film, or write about important moments in your life and frame the way you want to be remembered. This step isn’t meant to assist in handling your digital assets, but it is a nice way to organize and leave behind memories for your family. This could be especially beneficial for larger families or those spread across different locations.
What Is a Digital Asset?
What exactly is a “digital asset”? By “digital asset” I simply mean any computer-, internet-, or digital technology–based account. In short, anything that requires a login is a digital asset.
We have usernames, passwords, and security questions for quotidian things like Gmail, Netflix, and Uber Eats. However, we also have credentials for more critical digital assets such as loan and mortgage payment portals, online banking and investment accounts, or retirement accounts—the list goes on. If you have trouble keeping all of these various digital assets straight, just imagine how difficult (read: impossible) it would be for your personal representative to manage them after you’re gone.
Creating a Digital Asset Catalog
Because of the sheer number of digital assets each individual has and how many more will be added in the following years, I recommend that you create a Digital Asset Catalog.
This isn’t a formal legal document. Rather, it’s a rundown of all of your digital assets with instructions for how to access them. As with other aspects of your estate plan (e.g. beneficiary designations) this catalog should be reviewed and updated periodically.
(Don’t skip the rest, but at the end of this post you can download a free Digital Asset Catalog.)
Bitcoin, Ethereum, Cryptocurrencies
Once Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are purchased on an exchange, they are automatically stored on that exchange’s default wallet where they can be accessed electronically only by the investor with a unique key. If this key is lost, there is no surefire mechanism for regaining access.
In fact, billions (with a B) worth of Bitcoin are currently inaccessible to its owners because they have lost their keys.
Depending on how actively you invest in crypto, you may have multiple “wallets” and multiple accounts, each of which will have unique private keys and credentials.
Don’t Forget Social Media Accounts
Remember, your digital assets aren’t just those that have to do with money. They also include social media accounts like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t have at least one personal or business social media account.
A question you should ask yourself is, “What will happen to my social media accounts when I die?” One could easily imagine a situation in which, for example, years’ worth of family photos existed only on someone’s Instagram or Facebook account. Losing access to these memories could be heart wrenching to surviving family members.
Since as early as 2009, Facebook has allowed users to decide the fate of their accounts. In their Memorialization Settings, users can designate a “Legacy Contact” to manage their account after they’ve died. A Legacy Contact will have to submit a request to initiate the memorialization process, though. Alternatively, users can choose to delete the account instead.
Facebook owns Instagram so the process is somewhat similar. However, there are no Legacy Contact settings available for current account holders. Someone must send a request for memorialization to Instagram and provide proof of death. Only immediate family members can request an account be deleted.
LinkedIn’s account management process is more formal. As with Instagram, current users can do very little, but someone with authority to act on their behalf (e.g. personal representative) can submit a request for memorialization or removal. The person will need to submit a copy of the death certificate, official documentation of their status, and a variety of additional information about the deceased.
Twitter, in good fashion, is a huge mess. Currently, executors only have the option to request the removal of an account by contacting the company or to leave it active. But this means family members either delete it and lose access to their loved one’s Twitter history or they leave the account live and appeal to the “better nature” of online trolls, who could still post disparaging comments to the person’s account. Twitter has announced a plan for memorialization settings, but who knows when this will happen.
Importantly, each and every one of these social media platforms makes it clear that they can’t provide login information for a deceased or memorialized account. So, if you haven’t left behind the necessary account information, your loved ones will be unable to login.
How you store all of your passwords for these digital assets is important. First, there is no 100%, absolutely safe and fool-proof way to store your passwords aside from keeping them in your head. Obviously, that isn’t feasible given the length and complexity of passwords.
Pro Tip: Security experts recommend that you avoid urge to reuse the same passwords across all of your digital assets (see here and here). Best practices change, but at the very least you should have unique passwords and two-factor authentication set up for each account. Poor digital hygiene habits could seriously hurt you…just ask Colonial Pipeline!
There are various ways to keep track of all of your passwords. Here are a couple:
- Password Manager: These third-party programs are a popular means for organizing and tracking access to digital assets. Password managers function by locking all of your account credentials in a digital vault for which there is one “master password.” But, lose this master password and you are out of luck.
- Written List: You’ve probably heard people tell you how unwise it is to have a written list of your account credentials. But this is perfectly safe so long as you don’t leave the paper out in the open (or regularly allow bad actors to rummage through your stuff).
- Password-Protected List: Another option could be a computer file that is then password protected. We could call this a makeshift password manager. You could create a Word document that listed all of the login information for your digital assets, then convert the document into a PDF and password-protect it. Whatever you do, though, don’t keep an unsecured list of passwords on your computer in plain text.
Securing Your Digital Assets
To help you track and protect your digital assets and ensure that your heirs can obtain access to them, I’ve created a Digital Asset Catalog. You can download it for free here.
This Digital Asset Catalog comes in as a fillable PDF for easy use. Once you’ve entered the information into the document, you can then password protect it by clicking “Protect Using Password” in the File menu. Unauthorized people won’t be able to view the PDF, but you can update the list anytime you want!
Alternatively, you can print out the PDF and keep it in hard copy.
Start Securing Your Digital Assets
We urge you to take the necessary steps to ensure that your family has full access to all of your assets. Even though some digital assets won’t have significant economic value, they may have massive emotional value to your family. So, as you move forward don’t overlook the unique concerns of your various digital assets.
Call us today at (561)998-2362 to schedule your free Financial Legacy Review. We’ll talk about your planning needs, as well as many other facets of your overall financial and family plan. And if you need a hand organizing your digital assets, please download a copy of our Digital Asset Catalog.