The Internet Has
Changed the Way We
Plan Clients’ Estates
WSBA REAL PROPERTY, PROBATE
AND TRUST SECTION
by Rochelle L. Haller
Years ago, the death of a client would prompt the estate plan- ning attorney to sort through paper files at the decedent’s home and office and to collect the mail as it was delivered in an ef- fort to create a list of bills to pay,
services to cancel, assets to custody, and creditors to notify.
However, in today’s digital age, there may be no paper trail,
as the important information regarding bank and brokerage accounts, recurring expenses, insurance, and debts are
now stored digitally on the client’s computer, smartphone,
or email account. If the data cannot be accessed promptly,
important bills may go unpaid, valuable assets overlooked,
and the estate administration process delayed.
While lack of access to a client’s data is a significant problem, it is not the only one digital assets present. Not only are
digital assets the key to important information concerning
assets such as bank accounts and insurance, but in many
instances the digital assets themselves have significant financial or sentimental value. If steps are not taken during
estate planning to preserve and protect them in case of death
or disability, the estate may suffer financial loss and precious
memories of the decedent’s life may vanish.
Financial Value of Digital Assets
While some digital assets have little or no financial value,
some have significant value or can be the key to unlocking
other valuable assets. For example, a domain name often
has little or no value to third parties, but it can have significant value if tied to a popular Internet search term, words or
phrases used for selling goods or services, or a brand name.
Likewise, personal blogs tend to have little financial value,
but some generate significant revenue through the sale of advertisements or subscriptions.
Non-Financial Value of Digital Assets
In addition to potentially significant financial value, some
digital assets have great sentimental value to the family
and friends of a decedent. Long gone are the days when
special photographs, diaries, and letters were kept in a
shoebox or albums stored on a bookshelf. Instead, for
many people these items are now stored solely in a computer. Photographs are stored in online accounts or social
media sites. A decedent’s correspondence may consist of
only emails or text messages instead of handwritten letters. Blogs have replaced diaries, while Twitter and Facebook posts share a person’s daily thoughts and activities.
If heirs and loved ones are unable to find and access these
digital assets, the decedent’s life story could be lost.
Proper planning for digital assets can also help to
prevent identity theft. Upon death or disability, the risk
of identity theft increases because the deceased or incapacitated person is unable to monitor his or her online accounts, enabling criminals to hack the accounts to obtain
personal information needed to assume an identity.
Addressing Digital Assets in the Estate
Timely planning for the disposition and transfer of digital
assets upon death or disability may be the only adequate
method of preserving the value of the assets. Even in the
absence of planning, it may be possible for the client’s fidu-
ciary, working with a data forensics expert, to recover some ©I S