Your Digital Estate
We live in interesting times for estate planning. The internet is a revolution along the lines of the advent of the printing press, and it creates some new issues for the ancient art of estate planning, in some instances forcing us to reconsider long-settled laws of inheritance. My entry today concerns what people now call your "digital estate." I was inspired to share this information after listening to a great story on NPR about this topic.
Estate Planning has been around for quite some time. The last will and testament, for instance, comes down to us via an English adaptation of ancient Roman law. Every society and culture has its own body of law for passing property to people at death, and with computers and the internet a new kind of property has emerged-- digital property.
It's worth considering that anything that's on the Internet and connected to your digital image does have potential to outlast you. With so much of life in the 21st Century lived online, who gets control of your digital information when you die? You might be surprised to know that oftentimes your family doesn't have the automatic right to the thousands of emails, photos, tweets, and profiles that reside on servers you don't own. In 2004 Yahoo denied the father of a soldier killed in action the right to get into his account to collect his emails. While the father eventually won, he had to litigate over it, and Yahoo and many others still have in their service agreements that this information does not have to be shared with other people at your death.
States like Oklahoma have enacted statutes that give some authority to the executor of your will over and above those privacy restrictions, but this is all very much in the emergent phase. Estate Planners have come up with preliminary solutions such as:
- A "Digital Executor." This is a person you designate to represent your estate specifically to these online service providers where you have digital information stored. The idea is that if you've got someone with this official capacity, these sites are more likely to turn over your information that otherwise-- following the boilerplate privacy policies you always auto-sign-- they would not give to anyone. This person could be commissioned to run your "memorial" profiles and/or to destroy any private information you wouldn't want falling into the wrong hands.
- A Digital Inventory. This list would theoretically work in the way that a Missouri Personal Property Memorandum does right now. It would catalog your various accounts, a brief description of the contents, your access credentials, and what you want to be done with it after you die. Are there items that perhaps you don't want others to see? This document can instruct your Digital Executor to destroy that information. As you are no doubt coming to realize, this area of law is murky. A digital inventory instructing your digital executor to flagrantly violate a website's terms of service is problematic, and the relationships are still being worked out.
As these issues continue to develop, experts are publishing websites and books that are beginning to deal with these problems. Here are a few links worth checking out: