How to Estate Plan for Virtual Assets

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8th Apr 2014

In the past two decades, the Internet and the digital world have seen tremendous development, which led to the creation of ‘virtual assets’. As an Orange County estate planning professional, I want to help you learn more about the various solutions available to estate plan your virtual assets.
In order to become a virtual asset, a digital item must be characterized by four traits:

1.     Durability – the item is not of a temporary duration
2.     Property rights – the item is legally owned by a certain person
3.     Transferability – these rights can be legally transferred to a third party
4.     Value – the item holds value to at least one other person, whether it is market value or sentimental value
As you can see, this definition is pretty wide and can include a variety of digital items.  While estate planning for your real life estate is of maximum importance, as an Orange County estate planningprofessional, I believe that it is becoming increasingly important to plan for your virtual estate as well. Most of us leave quite a sizeable ‘online footprint’. We have accounts on social media websites where we post personal thoughts and opinions; we have email accounts where people can browse through our personal correspondence as they would when going through our mail; or perhaps we have an online blog which we use to broadcast articles on various topics.
However, beside these virtual assets mostly valued because of their emotional importance, it is quite possible for our virtual estate to include assets with market value. Some people have their own small internet business, or own a website which generates money from ads. Similarly, money can be gained from copyrights.  An example of this is a professional picture posted on a website that other users can download and use for a cost. You might have taken an interest in mining bitcoins, the famous virtual currency that has a high value nowadays.  Last but not least, we are talking about subscriptions to various websites, license keys for various software, and even accounts to online games – which can be sold or may contain items that could fetch a pretty good price on the market.  
All of these assets can be important to your loved ones. Beside the fact that anyone interested in your digital heritage could encounter legal and emotional issues, it is quite possible that no one is aware of all the virtual assets making up your virtual estate. This is why you should consider adding your digital possessions to your estate plan.
Software companies understand this need, and as a result offer an increasing number of options to those interested in such services. One of these services is offered by Google. Called the Inactive Account Manager, this service allows Google account owners to specify the exact manner in which they want their online stored data to be handled, whether we’re talking about pictures, videos or blog articles.
The main advantage of the Inactive Account Manager is that it is easy to use.  Once you have logged into your account, a simple click on the Settingsmenu, followed by Account and Account Management will take you to Control what happens to your account when you stop using Google, at which point you can select the Learn more and go to Setup option. Doing so will allow you to add the contact details of up to ten people who you want to be notified by Google at your account deactivation. You can even select a time span of inactivity that you want Google to keep track of.  If Google detects this time span of inactivity your account will be inactivated.  Google makes certain that you have really stopped using the account by checking for Gmail and related website activity. It will then send an automatic message to your inbox a month before deactivation. If no complaint is received, then when the account is deactivated the few you have selected will receive links to everything you have left, including photographs, documents or videos.  You don’t have to add the contact details of anyone, however. If you prefer, Google can delete everything you left behind.
Other solutions available to you include cloud services – such as that of SecureSafe, a company that gives you the opportunity to store a limited number of passwords and a limited amount of data for free on their servers. The service is free, and can be accessed from a number of platforms, but you can also select a premium account if you decide you need a larger storage space.
If you don’t want to, you don’t have to store your digital information online. If you fear the security of your data, you can choose to keep all information in a document file that you can later print and store safely. It is not recommended, however, that you add such a document to your will, as wills will become open to the public after your passing on. This would make the entire list of usernames and passwords visible to everyone.
Instead, leave the list in the hands of an executor that would understand how to find and use these virtual assets. By contacting the websites in question, he or she would be able to request the content of the account. Depending on the websites’ terms of service, such a request can be granted or denied. For instance, while you lose any rights over Google Play purchased items at death; the iTunes store allows you to play purchased content on up to five computers, making it easy for your heirs to benefit from these assets. Similarly, Kindle purchased content can be accessed by family members who have the account’s details.
Planning your digital estate is something which would ensure that your loved ones benefit from everything you left behind, the way you want it. If you feel that you need assistance, we are here and ready to answer any of your questions. Don’t hesitate to contact us for an estate planning assistance you may need in the Orange Countyarea.

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