One of the more novel aspects of modern New York estate planning includes determining what to do with one’s digital life after death. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, email archives, and other online resources continue to expand. Individuals of every age are using the services to store past communications, share personal information, stockpile photographs, publish essays, and much more.
Everyone may have different wishes for these unique assets after death, and so making those plans known is an important part of a New York estate plan. Just as with traditional assets, it is a mistake to allow default rules to dictate what happens to online property. In the digital context, rules of privacy often mean that loved ones are permanently locked out of online accounts. As a result, important memories, blog articles, photos, online journals, and other items may be forever lost.
Digital asset planning gained national attention a few years ago following a high-profile legal case. The parents of an American soldier killed in Iraq sought to have access to his old email account. Privacy policies at the email service did not allow such access, regardless of the death of the account holder. The family was forced to bring a lawsuit before eventually winning the right to access their son’s email archives.
Many online services have since sprung up seeking to help individuals carry out their wishes regarding their online information. My Life Scoop profiled some of these digital estate planning tools. The services come in a variety of forms, often including the storage of digital passwords under the control of a trustee. Others allow users to store specific digital files that are released to named individuals upon the death of the account holder.
A prudent estate plan should consider whether preparations for digital information need to be made. So much effort is spent creating online letters, photo albums, and other personal effects that it may be worthwhile for others to have the material down the road. However, there is some online information that one might wish to keep private after death and never intended to be seen by others.
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