As an end-of-life and after-loss consultant, my goal is to help give families the space to grieve, whether by making sure they're more prepared beforehand, or by taking tasks off their plate after a loss. One particular service I provide is helping people get their estate documents and end-of-life wishes organized. One often overlooked component of this organizational process is digital estate organization.
Maybe you’re thinking, “What in the heck is a ‘digital estate’?” While the term is confusing for many, whether you realize it or not, you have a digital estate that is much larger than you think!
Your digital estate is more than just a person’s online presence. It includes all the technology devices you have and all the data stored on them—your laptop, cell phone, hard drives (including external hard drives), tablets, etc. So as the lines are increasingly blurred between our online and offline lives, it's more important than ever to have this digital estate organized.
So now maybe you’re thinking, “So what? Why should I care? I mean, after all, I’ll be dead!”
Well, given the varying estimates that the average American consumer has between 90-207 online accounts with usernames and passwords, you should care a lot. Even if you take the lower estimate, that’s still a lot of accounts!
Other pieces of your digital estate you might not even think about but that have value include airline frequent flyer miles, reward points, and all of those movies in your Amazon Prime video library. Even bills you pay online are part of your digital estate.
So despite the fact that your digital assets have value, here are some other reasons why you need a digital estate plan:
To protect your digital property from being lost (iCloud photos, for example)
Protect them from after-death identity thieves
So all of your digital accounts can be dealt with after you're gone
To make sure services aren’t draining money from your accounts
To provide guidance and direction of what you want to have done with all of your stuff (photos, videos, emails, texts, files, and entire online presence)
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow and we need to plan accordingly when possible. The pandemic has made many Americans more open to talking about end-of-life and has resulted in a rise in estate planning. However, despite this increase, more than half of American adults still don't have a will, and even less have a plan for their digital estate.
So how do I help clients create a plan for their digital estate? Below is the step-by-step process!
Step 1: Create a list of your digital assets, a Digital Assets Inventory
Your list should include everything from hardware, social media accounts, online banking accounts, to home utilities you manage online, as well as usernames and passwords
At the very least, make sure someone knows the unlock code to your phone and the password to access your computer and email
Once you know what you have, plan what happens to it, and who will manage it
Consolidate, transfer, or cancel unneeded accounts
Step 2: Select someone to manage your digital estate after you're gone, which we call a Digital Executor
In some states, your existing executor may automatically get this ability, but it’s worth asking your attorney to specify someone
I help clients think through who is the best person to access your digital files and online accounts when you die, especially if the job would be better handled by somebody other than your executor (i.e. someone who’s technologically savvy!)
Step 3: Add Digital Heirs to Your Accounts
Step 4: Create Plan to Pass On Your Passwords
With a digital estate plan in place, all your digital accounts and services can be deleted, managed or transferred to someone else after you're gone. You also can ensure all paid or recurring services are closed and not draining money from your bank account or racking up credit card debt. Leaving detailed instructions for what accounts you want to have deleted and who gains access to your photos and documents makes it easy for your family. I know this can seem daunting in our current digital age, but the sooner you start the sooner it will be done.
In the same way you need to organize your financial assets and physical property, if you don't get a handle on your digital life, you're leaving a huge mess for your family when you sign off from this world.
No matter where you are in terms of your end-of-life planning journey, I want to congratulate you on taking these first actionable steps for protecting your family, preventing loss of assets and preserving your legacy. While it is uncomfortable and hard to make these preparations and plans ahead of time, it can often be harder on your family after you’ve gone. A comprehensive end-of-life plan truly is the greatest gift you can give your family.
Rachel Donnelly is the Founder & CEO of Black Dress Consultants, LLC, an end-of-life and after-loss consulting firm. She works with clients all over the U.S., virtually and in person. To schedule a complimentary consultation to learn more about how she can help you or your client, email her at email@example.com or visit blackdressconsultants.com.
Disclaimer: this isn’t legal advice, and shouldn’t be taken as such. Before drafting a will, consult a lawyer or legal service. We are not attorneys, financial advisors, or CPAs. However, we do partner with these resources, when needed, to ensure that every task that we complete for you is under their advice. If you do not have an estate attorney or financial advisor and your estate requires or would benefit from these resources, we are happy to connect you with our network of seasoned professionals.
Contributing Author: Rachel Donnelly