Include digital assets in estate plans to avoid confusion

California residents are living more and more of their lives online. Many areas of law have evolved in response to the popularity of online activities. But laws governing what happens to a person's online assets--which can include blogs, email accounts and social media pages--in the event of that person's death are still developing. This lack of definite legal standards may cause problems for heirs.

Another problem posed by deceased owners' online assets is that due to the frequent exclusion of digital assets in estate plans, heirs often face many complications in trying to work out what the owner's wishes were regarding those assets. Good estate planning can help prevent confusion and make settling the estate easier for everyone involved. The job of the estate administrator is to follow the expressed wishes of the deceased. But if the administrator does not know whether Facebook accounts, blogs and email should be left open or deleted, it can cause difficulties.

Because of many companies' online privacy policies, it can be very hard for a third party to gain access to a deceased person's accounts. This is true even for designated estate administrators. Many companies are reluctant to relinquish a deceased user's password, preferring to err on the side of protecting a user's privacy.

A very small minority of states have addressed whether online assets are part of a person's estate. Only two states have said explicitly that a decedent's estate encompasses blogs and social networking accounts. California is not one of those states. In states without laws governing digital assets, estate administrators probably need a court order to gain access to the accounts. This requires a lengthy and expensive process.

The only way to be sure that your wishes regarding digital assets will be carried out is to have an honest discussion with those trusted with your estate administration. People should be wary of potential pitfalls in this area, however. Including passwords to digital accounts in a will is not generally a good idea because wills become a matter of public record.

Source: MSNBC.com, "Digital Afterlife: What happens to your online account when you die?" Jessica Hopper, June 1, 2012.

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