Why you need a digital executor

Digital assets are increasingly valuable property, but only a small percentage of Americans are aware that they need to make provisions for how their heirs handle those assets.  

Lauren Gambino/AP/File
This printout of the Facebook page for Loren Williams, now deceased, is owned by his mother, Karen Williams, who has battled Facebook over the right to view Loren’s Facebook page. This year the Oregon Legislature took up the cause, only to be turned back by pressure from the tech industry, which says they must abide by a 1986 federal law that prevents them from sharing such information.

How much do you value your digital assets – all your e-mails, digital photos, digital music, social media accounts, and so on? Are they worth $100? $1,000? Would it surprise you that a recent McAfee survey found that Americans, on average, value their digital assets at nearly $55,000?

That's valuable property – on par with assets like bank accounts, stock portfolios, and irreplaceable heirlooms that people routinely plan to pass on to their heirs. Yet, only a small percentage of Americans are aware of the need to make similar provisions for their digital assets. A recent Harris survey of 2,076 adults, commissioned by my company, Rocket Lawyer, found that 93 percent of Americans with digital assets didn’t know or were misinformed about what happens to these digital assets after they die.

Without directions provided in your estate plan, your heirs could face a number of challenging questions, like:

  • What should be done with the deceased’s Facebook page and other social media accounts?
  • What should be done with personal e-mails, digital photos, and videos?
  • How can these assets be located and accessed if they’re online?

Unless there are directions left in the deceased’s estate plan, default laws will apply in the same way as with other assets. For example, everything might go to a spouse or other next-of-kin, and the people left behind will have to coordinate with third parties to retrieve any digital assets – if they can figure out where the deceased person had these accounts.

That’s why it’s essential that your will appoint a digital executor. It could be the same person as your regular executor or someone else if, for example, your primary executor isn’t especially tech-savvy. This person makes sure your wishes are followed for these nontangible assets.

You’ll also need to make a list of your digital assets, the information you use to log in to these sites, and how you want each one managed after your death. For example, there might be personal photos you’d like to keep private. Maybe you’d like your Facebook page to be turned off because it seems morbid to leave it up once you’re gone – or alternatively, you’d like it to stay up as a memorial to you. With clear directions and a digital executor to make sure your requests are carried out, your family is left with a plan.

Digital estate planning is a relatively new area of law, and an estate planning attorney is the best resource for making sure you get it done right. For example, it’s helpful to know whether websites allow account access to designated executors, what authorization is needed, if they can have legal permission to access online financial accounts, and whether state law requires your digital executor to reside in the same state as you.

Whatever you do, plan ahead. And create that will as soon as possible, so that things are a little easier for the people you leave behind.

– Charley Moore is the founder of Rocket Lawyer, an online legal service based in San Francisco.

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