In recent years, planning for digital assets has become far more important. You can see why below.
Andrew Magliochetti, 38, always feared dying without an estate plan. In his 20s, he prepared a will. But after consulting with his money manager, Mr. Magliochetti took an even more unusual step: He listed his digital assets, which include digitized family movies and social media accounts, as well as some assets that are more esoteric, like digital currencies and domain names.
Mr. Magliochetti then stored his passwords, including those for Facebook and Twitter, on a password manager that his brother, who is his estate executor, could easily get access to. Family photos and movies were uploaded onto the file-hosting service Dropbox, which makes them easy to share, he said.
“Being so organized takes a lot of time,” said Mr. Magliochetti, a managing director at Maroon Capital Group in Chicago. “But if someone can’t access my assets, they can disappear.”
Unlike Mr. Magliochetti, many people are neglecting to include digital effects in their estate plans. Estate planning experts say that may be a big mistake. Valuable assets may go unnoticed, or money and time might be spent tracking them down.
Before the digital age, a family member could merely walk through a home and find physical objects or paper records, said James Lamm, an estate planning lawyer at Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis. Mail deliveries were checked for account statements or bills.
Today, many statements are delivered via email, and important financial records may be stored in the cloud or on computers, he added.
And some assets like digital currencies, video game characters and Internet domain names exist only in cyberspace. “So they can be overlooked, since they aren’t as tangible,” said Tim Hewson, president of USLegalWills.com, adding that such assets “can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.”
Then there are social media accounts. “People are acquiring more digital assets like Facebook photos or email addresses almost without realizing it,” said Evan Carroll, co-founder of the Digital Beyond website. “You can’t ignore them.”
But gaining access to social media accounts can be tricky. State laws governing digital assets vary, and online sites that are concerned about user privacy have wildly different terms and conditions that sometimes lock out executors.
“We’re in a bizarre no-man’s land,” said Elizabeth Sillin, a lawyer at Bulkley Richardson, which has offices in Massachusetts. “Some online services will not grant access to a third party. So executors are getting in by using passwords,” she said — passwords that would have been provided by the deceased or the deceased’s family members.
Experts recommend making a thorough inventory of all online accounts and their passwords but not to include them in your will. Wills should not be changed frequently while online account information often is. Specify how you want each account handled if you die, Mr. Lamm said. Terms and conditions for each site can also be included.
This inventory can then be stored in an encrypted file, safe or even with your attorney.
John Egan, whose mother died unexpectedly in August, said he was grateful that she organized her digital assets meticulously. A gadget lover, his mother had several devices including smartphones, laptops and a phablet. Estate documents listed dozens of digital assets like her email, Facebook page, photographs and the like. Passwords were left on a password device.
“Anyone who has digital assets should lay them out like my mother did,” said Mr. Egan, who is an editor at LawnStarter in Austin, Tex. “Digital assets just add another layer to what I already have to do.”
Mr. Lamm also recommends updating a will, power of attorney and revocable trust with digital-property information. The executor should also be authorized to obtain access to devices and online accounts, and even reset passwords.
Keep photos on a computer or local storage device rather than an online site, Mr. Lamm recommends. That way, they are easier to retrieve. Putting them on two storage devices that are in separate places — a home safe and a lawyer’s office — is even better.
“You have to plan ahead,” Mr. Lamm said. “As more wealth moves into the cloud, good luck tracking this stuff.”
The executors of those who didn’t make an inventory and list passwords may end up having to hire a computer forensics expert who can try to gain access to a smartphone or computer, he added, which can be challenging.
Email passwords are especially important to note, Ms. Sillin said. Email usually holds a digital paper trail of account transactions, such as online bank statements and digital payments.
Some assets can’t be passed on to heirs. One of Ms. Sillin’s clients tried to leave an iTunes library to a son, but it couldn’t be done. Generally, digital music and e-book purchases are nontransferable because they’re licensed to the user. “You can only leave these assets if a user agreement permits it,” Ms. Sillin said.
As Mr. Magliochetti observed: “Make the process as easy as possible. As Internet adoption continues, planning will become more important.”