If you spend a lot of time on the internet, you're not just shopping or being entertained, or following the news or participating in an online community. You're probably also dealing with accounts and information that eventually can become part of your digital "estate." And if this estate isn't properly looked after, it can lead to confusion and conflict among your survivors, as well as an opportunity for hackers to try to get at whatever resources they can touch.
If you haven't stopped to think about it, you might be surprised at the number of assets that could become part of your digital estate. You may have financial accounts (banking, brokerage and bill-paying); virtual property accounts (air miles, "points" for hotel bookings); business accounts (eBay, Amazon, Etsy); email accounts (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo); social networking accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram); online storage accounts (Google Drive, iCloud, Drobox); and application accounts (Netflix, Kindle, Apple).
Given all these areas, how can you protect and preserve your digital estate? Here are a few suggestions:
Create a detailed inventory of digital assets. Following the categories listed above, draw up a list of all your digital assets.
Document your wishes for how you want your digital assets managed. If you don't specify how you want your digital assets managed upon your death or incapacitation, you might be opening the door to lengthy legal battles over access to these assets. In a worst-case scenario, your heirs and beneficiaries might never get the assets you had intended for them.
Name a digital executor in your last will and testament. A digital executor can accomplish a variety of tasks related to your digital estate, such as transferring online assets to your heirs; closing accounts you don't want transferred; managing personal materials by archiving or deleting files, photographs, videos and other content you have created; and, finally, informing online communities of your passing. When choosing a digital executor, you'll want someone you can trust, of course, but you'll also want to make sure that person is skilled enough in technology to search your computer properly and navigate the internet and multiple websites. Not all states recognize a digital executor, so you may want to consult with a legal professional to learn about the laws governing digital estate planning in your state. Also, even if you have a digital executor, online platforms enforce their own rules about who can or can't access a deceased person's accounts. If you are concerned about this, you may want to contact the customer service areas from these types of providers – Google, PayPal, Facebook, etc. – to learn their policies.
Review your plans. Review your digital estate plans on a regular basis, just as you do with your physical/tangible estate plans. The digital world is a fast-moving one, so you'll need to stay current with changes.
In some ways, managing a digital estate can be more challenging than dealing with a physical estate. But by following the above suggestions, you can help reduce any "cyber-angst" your loved ones may feel when it's time to deal with the digital presence you've left behind.
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