Kevin Ruth is head of wealth planning and personal trust at Fidelity Investments. The company often fields questions from customers wondering how they should incorporate digital assets, such as social media accounts and cryptocurrencies, into their estate planning. Ruth talks with Providence Business news about this issue, why it matters and how folks should be thinking about it.
PBN: What is digital property?
RUTH: There are generally two forms of digital property: financial and sentimental. Assets that have financial value include digital currency such as bitcoin, and domain names. Assets that have sentimental value could be photos, videos and social media sites [such as] Facebook or Instagram.
PBN: Why is it important for people to think about digital property during estate planning?
RUTH: From a legal point of view, digital property is like other kinds of property because it can be passed on to designated parties through estate plans. Yet the laws regarding digital property are still evolving, as are the practices of companies [such as] Facebook and Google. For these and other reasons, gaining access to digital assets, and to digitally encoded financial information, can present challenges for anyone other than the original owner.
If your estate plan doesn’t account for digital assets properly, your heirs may not have access to them. Family photos and videos could be lost forever, social media accounts could stay up long after you’ve passed and your heirs may not receive all the money that you’d like to see come their way.
PBN: How should people be thinking about it?
RUTH: Fortunately, you can help your heirs avoid the legal obstacles that can cause problems after your death by addressing digital property and information in your estate plan.
Make a list. Start by listing your digital property so your loved ones know what you have and where they can find it. Include all your important passwords, online accounts, including email, social media, PayPal, etc., and digital property, including domain names and virtual currency. Store your list in a secure location and make sure your family members know how to access it.
Understand what you really own. There are instances where you may have thought you purchased a digital asset, but in fact you purchased a nontransferable license to use the asset, [such as] music. There may also be limitations restricting the number of times you can burn the music to a CD.
Back up data stored in the cloud. If you store any digital assets in the cloud, back them up to a local computer or storage device on a regular basis so that family members and fiduciaries can access them with fewer obstacles.
Provide consent in legal documents. Work with an estate planning attorney to update your wills, powers of attorney and any revocable living trusts. They should include language giving lawful consent for providers to divulge the contents of your electronic communications to the appropriate people. You also might consider exactly which information you want to make available.
PBN: What about passwords and allowing access to online accounts? How can passwords be handled safely?
RUTH: We put a lot of effort into protecting our passwords, but upon death, those designated to manage our estate will need to know how to access important information. It’s imperative to securely document passwords and provide detailed instructions. These can be stored in an online safe, such as Fidelity’s FidSafe, which offers a mechanism for storing passwords.
In your estate planning documents, you can specifically allow your fiduciaries to bypass, reset or recover your passwords. This is particularly helpful since this allows them to lawfully access important financial documents, as well as access [or] manage social media accounts [such as] Facebook.
PBN: What are the risks of not thinking about these assets?
RUTH: Since gaining access to digital assets, and to digitally encoded financial information, can present challenges for anyone other than the original owner, it’s important that your estate plan is digitally savvy. Digital assets are still a relatively new phenomenon, the laws that deal with them are changing rapidly. Talk with your attorney about the steps you can take now, and check in regularly to update your estate plan to accommodate any changes in the law.