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Estate planning: don't forget to plan for your digital estate

By Maureen Kinney, Estate Planning Attorney La Crosse WI on Tuesday, March 12th 2013

Estimates indicate 30 million Facebook accounts belong to dead people. Another 1.5 million Twitter users die each year. Add to that all the photos, financial and retail accounts of dead people, and that’s a lot of unattended, unclaimed digital assets lingering in the virtual world.

The trend toward online computing, banking, account management and even socializing has revealed a black hole in estate planning, where it’s difficult for survivors to see, let alone retrieve, digital assets. Fortunately, people now — and their estate planning attorneys — are catching up to fill the massive gap.

In fact, the need for digital estate planning, as it’s called, is becoming so ubiquitous that the Uniform Laws Commission, a body that provides states with non-partisan, well-drafted legislation that clarifies critical areas of state law, is developing a uniform law to make it easier to access digital property.

In the meantime, it’s wise to update your estate plans (or get them started if you don’t already have them) to include provisions for your social media and digital assets.

The process is much the same as estate planning for other assets. You list your assets and then indicate whom you want to handle them.

The simplest way to start is to develop a list of all your online accounts, including the domain name along with user IDs, passwords and any pins associated with each account. The average computer user has 25 different passwords, so many people already have such a written list. If you’re starting from scratch, make a point each time you visit one of your accounts to add it to the list.

In addition to popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn, think about others where you tend to share or store other personal files, such as Flickr, Instagram, Snapfish, Animoto or blogs.

For these platforms, review each one’s privacy policy and terms and conditions to see what your options are. Facebook, for example, will memorialize accounts of deceased persons, so friends and family members may share remembrances on your site.

Also be sure to add all your online financial accounts, including banking IDs and passwords, credit cards, Quickbooks or tax accounts, insurance and brokerage accounts. And don’t forget shopping. Whether you use Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Audible.com or shop your favorite catalogs online, you’ll need to include all those accounts as well, especially if you saved credit card numbers on them.

While you’re at it, remember airlines, frequent flyer accounts and online travel accounts.

As you develop the list — and review sites’ policies — indicate how you would like that account handled upon your death. You may want to completely cancel online profiles, you may want to create a memorial profile where others can see it and comment — or see it and not be able to comment.

Once you have the list, it’s equally important to let your personal representative know where to find it. Some people keep it in a safe deposit box and give a spare key to the personal representative. Others simply keep the list hidden in a particular file drawer or even a kitchen cupboard. Wherever you place it, make sure it’s a secure place and that your personal representative knows how to access it.

Most social media and other accounts will require a copy of the death certificate before the personal representative can manage your accounts.

Thinking about your own demise certainly isn’t pleasant. But planning for its inevitability will make things easier for your loved ones when you do leave this world.

Maureen Kinney is an attorney at Johns, Flaherty & Collins. For an estate planning lawyer in La Crosse WI, call Maureen at 608-784-5678.

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