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Gina MacDonald: Digital estate planning

It's the Law

Posted: March 11, 2010 10:28 p.m.
Updated: March 12, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Once upon a time, the key to a safe deposit box was all loved ones needed to unlock the secrets of a life recently ended. Today many aspects of our lives, both financial and personal, are lived in places accessible only by a password.

We have e-mail addresses, online brokerages and banks, Facebook and MySpace profiles and accounts with PayPal, eBay and more.

In addition, many people have formed relationships with people they know only through game or social networking sites.
When a person dies, access to these accounts and contacts can be lost or extremely difficult to retrieve. Unless you have the passwords to the deceased persons' online accounts, you will be "locked out" of obtaining information.

Many times, these entities will refuse to communicate with the executor or trustee until "Letters Testamentary" are provided from the court.

As a result, a small online industry has sprung up to help people pass on the digital keys to their online lives should they die or become disabled. Call it "digital estate planning" or creating a "virtual executor."

On a typical site, users sign up and pay an annual fee to upload everything from crucial online passwords to locker combinations into a private account. Upon the user's death or disability, the individuals they have designated to receive this private information are told how to open the account and access the information.

These people may also receive final wishes and a farewell e-mail from the deceased. Some sites even allow users to store estate planning documents such as wills and advance directives.

For example, a company called AssetLock offers a secure "safe deposit box" to hold such things as digital copies of important documents, final messages for family and friends, passwords and information on hidden accounts.

Once a minimum number (set by the owner) of recipients sign in and confirm the owner's death, the account is unlocked after a time delay (which also can be set by the owner).

Similar services are offered by LegacyLocker and by companies with intimidating names such as Deathswitch and Slightly Morbid.
Other services focus on assisting people in sending important messages to loved ones. GreatGoodbye allows users to store e-mail, photos and videos that will be sent to those closest to them in the event of their confirmed death. Similar services are offered by companies called EternityMessage and Last Post.

In our digital age, access to passwords for accounts only maintained on the Web are important for your executor or trustee to have. If you do not wish to use such a service, it is important to leave this information with your original will or trust to help the people left behind settle your estate.

Gina MacDonald's practice is limited to estate planning, trust administration, probate and elder law. She maintains her practice in the Santa Clarita Valley. Her column represents her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "It's The Law" appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association. Nothing contained herein shall be or is intended to be construed as providing legal advice.


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