Digital Estate Planning: A Brave New World

Digital Estate Planning: A Brave New World

The world has changed significantly in the last ten years, but the majority of estate planning lawyers haven't changed along with it. Traditional estate planning deals with tangible things—your house, car, money, and other physical items that exist in the real world. Traditional estate planning typically does not take into account your digital assets—purchased music and movies, digital photos, rights to access social media accounts, and other non-physical things that still might have some value today. Read on to learn how to plan for the transfer of your digital assets after you pass away.

Digital Music and Movies

Digital music and movies are tough to pin down for digital estate planning purposes. Some purchases are tied to an End User Licensing Agreement ("EULA") that limit your ability to transfer your music and video library. When you purchase a movie or song from Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play, you often do not receive any actual ownership over it—you receive a license to play or use the song or video. That license often has a direct prohibition against third-party transfers. Some people choose to download songs or videos directly to a hard drive or physical storage media to make transfer easier, but whether you're technically allowed to do that varies based on the terms of the EULA.

The other kind of digital media that you might see in a modern estate is a library of music or movies copied (or "ripped") from the actual physical discs. These files are usually stored on computers or hard drives and typically lack digital copyright protection measures. Transferring ownership of these files is typically easier if they can actually be located. Locating the files is often the problem, so the easiest solution is to make a backup copy on a thumb drive or external hard drive and keep it in a safe place alongside your Will.

Finally, a digital estate plan should deal with any streaming services in order to help your executor cancel any of those services once you pass away. Streaming services include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, HBO Now, Sling TV, Tidal, Soundcloud, and more. If your executor doesn't know which ones you pay for, canceling them all can be a nightmare. The easiest way to handle this is to make a list of the services you subscribe to and keep it with your will. It might change over time, but at least your executor will have a handle on where they should look first.

Photos & Videos

Photos are a big deal in digital estate planning. You used to be able to dig through your loved one's things to find a treasure trove of old photos. Now, almost all photos are digital and they live on phones, computers, and tablets. If they aren't properly preserved, they can be lost to the hands of time. There are two ways to preserve digital photos. The first is by keeping backup hard drives in a safe place. I would recommend at least two drives to prevent data loss. The other option is a cloud backup services like Google Drive, Dropbox, or iCloud. You can also use both options together for extra protection. In either case, it is important that your executor have passwords or access to any accounts where you store photos so they don't get locked out when they try to access them.

Social Media

Most people have social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Google Plus, or LinkedIn. Who is going to control your account when you pass away? Do you want the account to be shut down, or do you want it to continue on as a tribute page? These are important questions that become much easier when you provide instructions to your executor. Some social networks have set up ways to handle your account after death, but instructing your executor what to do and providing access is probably the simplest and most effective way to accomplish what you want with your various social media profiles.

Estate Planning is Evolving

It's obvious to even a casual observer that estate planning needs are evolving. Your actual estate plan should evolve with it. You shouldn't settle for the old-fashioned "Last Will and Testament" alone when your actual estate planning needs have evolved beyond that.