Written By: Rachel Donnelly
As an end-of-life and after-loss consultant, my goal is to help give families the space to grieve, whether that is by making sure they're more prepared beforehand or by taking tasks off their plate after a loss. One service that I provide is helping people get their estate documents and end-of-life wishes organized, and an often-overlooked component of this is digital estate organization.
You may be thinking, what in the heck is a “digital estate”? While the term can be confusing for many, and 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. Also included in your digital estate are 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 you may be 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 that you pay online are part of your digital estate.
So, even though 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 from after-death identity thieves
- All of your digital accounts can be dealt with after your gone
- To make sure services aren’t draining money from your account
- To provide guidance and direction of what you want to have done with all 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 that we need to plan accordingly when possible. The pandemic has made many Americans more open to talking about end-of-life and produced 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: Conduct a Digital Assets Inventory
- Your list should include everything from hardware, social media accounts, online banking accounts, to home utilities that 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, you can 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 your gone, aka a Digital Executor
- In most 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 the best person is 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!)
- I recommend writing a letter of instruction telling your executor about your wishes for specific or groups of digital assets — what to delete, what to archive and what to transfer
Step 3: Add Digital Heirs to Your Accounts
- I help guide clients in identifying the tech companies that allow you to assign someone to take some actions directly through the account
Step 4: Create Plan to Protect Passwords today
- Using a password manager allows you to capture, organize and protect your online accounts and passwords and some even allow you to name a deputy or legacy contact, deciding who gets access and when
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 can also 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 to protect your family, prevent loss of assets and preserve 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/or in person. To schedule a complimentary consultation to learn more about how she can help you or your client, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.