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For estate planning, what are digital assets?

March 21, 2014
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

QUESTION: My nephew is very involved in technology and when I mentioned that I was working on planning my estate he said not to forget my digital assets. I understand that what I own can be called "assets" and I know that some of my assets are tangible and some intangible. What are digital assets?

ANSWER: Tangible assets can be perceived with the senses. Real estate is clearly tangible. Intangible assets can't be seen. Trade secrets are intangible. Assets that exist only as data are considered "digital" and your nephew is right. Digital assets are part of your estate and your estate planning should include digital estate planning.

The most obvious digital asset is your email account. Justin Ellsworth was a U.S. Marine serving in Iraq when he was killed by a roadside bomb. His father said that he had discussed with Justin keeping his emails as a form of family history but Yahoo would not give Justin's father access to his emails. His father petitioned the court to become Justin's executor but even then, Yahoo would only provide the emails he had received, not sent. They cited their Terms of Agreement and Privacy Policy as the reasons. If Justin had used an email management program like Microsoft Outlook, gaining access to the emails would have been unnecessary since they would have been preserved on the hard drive.

Google has a privacy policy that allows the subscriber to decide whether and to whom rights to access data should be accorded. It is called "Inactive Account Manager for Trusted Contacts" and this provides a way for users to share parts of their account data or to notify someone if they have been inactive for a certain period of time.

Digital readers have also become popular. If a Kindle owner dies, Kindle permits an heir or family member who knows the password to take over the account. The password can be used to change the email address on the account, with Kindle's blessing.

Although banking and securities accounts are accessible through online websites, they are not digital assets because they exist apart from the websites.

Although not technically digital assets, care should be taken if the account holder is unable to monitor the banking site due to illness.

If you are planning your estate, consider more than just your tangible property. Include a digital estate plan in the process.

Attorney Sylvia Heldreth is a certified specialist in real estate law. Her office is located at 1215 Miramar St., in Cape Coral.

This article is not intended as specific legal advice to anyone and is based upon facts that change from time to time. Individuals should seek legal counsel before acting upon any matter involving the law.



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