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The Challenges of Digital Estate Organization

In year’s past, managing one’s Estate documents was a simpler task. All of the documents you needed could be organize and secured in one place – maybe a copy stayed with your attorney, maybe it was stored in a filing cabinet at home or in a safety deposit box at the bank. Your Will, Power of Attorney and other legal papers would be available to those that needed it if they knew where it was kept and in some cases had a key to the safety deposit box it was kept in.

But today, organizing one’s Estate is a much bigger challenge. In addition to the papers, now we also have to remember to account for digital material such as banking and investment information, email accounts, social media and information stored on our hardware devices. We have laptop computers, desktop computers, tablets, smart phones, external hard drives, USB flash drives just to name a few. So the challenge is no longer just remembering where the papers are stored, rather is has become a struggle to remember what we have and where we have it. We struggle not only to remember these details, but how we can organize this information in order to let others know where things are in case something happens to us. Welcome to the world of Digital Estate Organization, a relatively new term that is becoming increasingly important in our daily lives.

There are two sides to this problem, both equally important, but often treated as “something we’ll get around to one day”. First, how do we remember the list of things we must account for, especially those online things and the User names and Passwords that go with them. Second, once we identify those things, what access do we want to give and who we want to give it to in case of our incapacity or death?

First, think of all the things you do on a daily basis that are somehow tied to the digital world – banking, blogging, cloud services, credit card accounts, dating sites, E-commerce, email, paying bills online, services we access, shopping, social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook), software subscriptions, streaming services such as music and video, web sites and design, and web hosting. Who, besides us, know the extent to which we are digitally active? If something were to happen to us, which of those activities would we need others to have access to and who would we choose to give that access to? In some cases you may need a death certificate and written legal authorization to pass this authority over to your executor. So where do you start?

To start with, we have to concern ourselves with the assets themselves. We have to ask ourselves:

  1. What are the assets?

  2. Where can we find these assets?

  • Historical – things we prepared in the past that instruct how we want our heirs to carry out our wishes in case of disability or death. Wills, POA’s, Advanced Directives. These tends to be written documents with original signatures on them. There is no substitute form as of yet for these documents. They must continue to be accounted for and stored as they were in the past. It is not a bad idea to scan these documents, keep copies and distribute copies to those who will need them so they know they exist. Not everyone wants to give their relative a copy of their Will, so just inventorying it for them and letting them know where it is may suffice.

  • Current – things we work with on a daily or frequent basis. These things have tended to become more online based over the years.

  • Are they paper based, signed documents? Files on electronic devices?

  • Are there clear instructions on the physical location of these assets?

  • Are they on a computer, tablet, smart phone, external hard drive, flash drive, on backup CD’s or DVD’s, in the cloud?

  • If you haven’t created a list of everything and where to find it, how can you expect someone else to be able to do this?

We are talking about creating an inventory of all assets, paper and digital. This is no small task and is what prevents most of us from starting on this project. It can be overwhelming thinking of all the possibilities, but if we don’t, then our heirs won’t have a chance. I compiled a spreadsheet of over twenty pages worth of questions to ask myself for every conceivable piece to this puzzle and I’m sure I have missed some items. And here’s another thing – even when you are done with this project, you are never really done. Additions are made all the time. Passwords change. We have to regularly repeat the exercise and keep the list up to date. Create your list either on paper or in a spreadsheet, but do not store it on your computer. Remember, this list will have all the access information to the most sensitive of your information. Guard it as you would anything else of this value. There are some online sites that offer to store this information for you, but in this age of constant data breaches, I question the wisdom or need to do this. A good external hard drive can accomplish this same thing for much less and can be locked away for safekeeping.

Second, we have to decide whom to give access to these assets in case of our incapacity or death. This involves the decisions about:

  • Leaving instructions on what your wishes are.

  • Making sure, in the case of digital assets, that you leave the correct Username, Password, and security questions answer information.

  • Giving the proper legal authority and making sure that it ends up in the hands of someone suited and capable of performing that task.

  • Dealing with changing technologies – biometrics (fingerprints, retinal scan access)

In short, we need to create a plan by:

  1. Putting things in order

  2. Select the right people to handle things

  3. Leave reasonably clear instructions

We can do these things by working with a relatively simple five step plan:

  1. Inventory your assets, both paper and digital

Paper – legal documents, name, date created, where it is stored

Digital – hardware including all computers (both work and personal), USB flash drives, external hard drives, backup CD’s or DVD’s, digital cameras, tablets and phones. Remember to account for:

  • Document file structures as they exist on these hardware devices. This is how your digital filing cabinet is laid out. Do this on paper. Consider making a video if your situation is more complicated. Seek help is you don’t understand these things.

  • Online presence – email accounts, web sites.

  • Online accounts for companies you buy products and services from.

  • Work information. This is a whole other situation for people who own businesses in whole or in partnership with others.

  1. Identify the appropriate person to handle each asset and situation– does that person have:

  2. Provide for access – create a list and keep it in a safe place, maybe a USB drive with a list of all important information kept separate from your computer

  • Financial savvy

  • Technical savvy

  • Executor status

  1. Provide instructions – these are notes in addition to the access information to those selected to carry out our wishes. This is where we express what we want done with our information. These can be:

Notifications – what to do with social media for example

Continuing or closing sites – how to continue or preserve

Realizing value – is there a monetary value or income stream you can realize?

“Do not delete” – family photos or historical data

Bequeathed items – information to be archived or donated to others

  1. Establish authority

Can others act on your behalf? Do they have the authority and is advanced legal planning necessary? “Digital Estate Planning” is an evolving area of law. Whatever you do, at the very least leave clear instructions on what your wishes are, who you want to carry out your wishes and even why. Recognize that not everyone should always get equal access because they not be willing or able to carry out your wishes.

For those chosen to carry out the wishes of their loved ones as described here, always remember to:

  • Get assistance if needed.

  • Carry out wishes as quickly as possible.

  • Change passwords.

  • Close down accounts with extreme caution. Doing it too early may cause you to lose valuable information.

  • Delete things carefully and completely. You may want to move information onto an external hard drive to preserve copies when in doubt.

  • Locate, aggregate and isolate financial and client records.

  • Remove default credit card information from all accounts.

  • If in doubt, digitize it and keep it.

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