You definitely need a plan to share passwords with your executor. If a digital asset is encrypted or protected by a strong password, the asset is effectively lost. Sharing passwords is a start, but it is not enough.
You may have multiple e-mail accounts, personal or family websites and blogs, domain names, important records, collections of digital photographs, a library of e-books and music, games, films, and online bank and brokerage accounts. To whom do these accounts belong? And how can they be passed on to heirs?
Dennis Kennedy recently wrote an article for the ABA webzine, Law Practice Today, entitled "Estate Planning for your Digital Estate." Kennedy presents a five step plan to help survivors deal with digital assets.
Make a written list of your hardware and software. This include desktop and laptop computers, discs, DVDs, external hard drives, smart phones, and flash memory.
List where you store your income tax files, Quicken files, and family genealogy. What programs do you use to post to blogs and websites? If you use online backup, you need to let your executor know your user name and password.
If your banking is paperless, a written inventory prepared by you might be the only way your executor even knows about the account. List all the payees who receive automatic payment from your credit cards and checking account so that another six months of health club payments don't get made. List all subscriptions and memberships.
Identify Appropriate Help
You name executors and trustees to manage your estates, but are they computer literate? You might want to add one more co-executor who knows about digital assets. A twenty-year-old you would never allow to handle large sums of money might be just the person you want to wind up your online presence.
With a large digital estate, you may want to ask whether or not the attorney for the estate os able to manage digital assets.
Provide for Access
We are often told never to write down our passwords and to make them secure by choosing ones with letters and numbers and special characters that no one will be able to guess. That is exactly the opposite of what you need to do to make sure your digital assets are handled appropriately when you die.
Make the password list, and make sure it is stored securely - maybe write it on a paper kept with your will.
Your digital manager needs to be told which accounts to maintain, for how long, and which to close. Decisions made for some accounts may be different for others. You may want your websites to stay open for six months, then be closed, and some email accounts closed without delay.
If you are working on a long term project such as a book, you may want to make a list of "do-not-delete" files or folders.
Those thousand songs you bought online are worth a thousand dollars or more. You might want to add them to the no-delete list.
Give the Appropriate Authority
The larger the digital estate, the more you might need to name someone in your will to handle your digital assets, maybe even making that person a co-executor limited to handling online assets. That way the co-executor in charge of your digital estate will appear on probate certificates. Without such documented authority, your digital estate manager may meet stiff resistance when trying to deal with third parties.
As for the digital estate manager, Kennedy gives some good advice:
• Get technical help when you need it.
• Use contact lists, Facebook or other social network sites to notify friends of the funeral date.
• Change all passwords as soon as possible.
• Do not start closing inexpensive accounts right away. Websites are especially cheap to maintain and expensive to reconstruct.
• When deleting from drives, use a program to clean up unused space. Use several passes to make a thorough job of it. Deleting a file makes it inaccessible to the average user, but it remains accessible to motivated hackers.
• Invest in two USB hard drives. Transfer all computer files onto one drive and from that drive transfer all the "good stuff" onto the other. When done, wipe the first USB hard drive clean.
• Make copies of websites before taking them down.
• Edit all shopping accounts by deleting all credit card information.
• When it comes to photos, videos and old email, lean more to saving than to deleting.