Digital Assets & Your Estate Plan

Digital Assets & Your Estate Plan


As our lives become more data-driven, many of us wind up owning assets that ?live? on the web. These could be photos that are stored on a website, social media profiles, PDF documents, e-mails and other types of intellectual property. Web-centric businesses ? for example, an eBay storefront or a PayPal account ? also carry a monetary value.

Many of those digital assets are password-protected, with the owner having exclusive access. These cyber assets may also be subject to the terms of service set forth by the company giving the user account access in the first place.

Here’s what could happen if no contingency plan is in place for these digital possessions.

A woman in her 40s dies unexpectedly in her sleep. Her computer is password-protected and no one knows the password or user ID’s with passwords for any of her accounts. In order to resolve the matter, the woman’s parents are appointed personal representatives of the estate and then bring the computer into a tech service so that it can be unlocked. Eight frustrating weeks later, the still-grieving parents finally obtain the legal authority to access the contents of the computer and resolve the daughter’s online data. If only the woman had created an estate plan and included her digital legacy, including access to the computer and where the information was located and how to access it, valuable time would not have been wasted and an already complicated situation could have gone much smoother for those left dealing with her digital life.


Planning for digital assets begins with creating an inventory of all the relevant files and accounts and their related passwords, and listing them on a consolidated document that is also password-protected. This document can also be a paper document stored in a safe deposit box. This information is treated like any other part of the estate plan. It needs to be updated and shared only with the most trusted person?be it your spouse or your agent under power of attorney.

Trust documents also need to be revised to let the trustee take control of the digital assets. Language needs to be added to the documents to give the agent under power of attorney specific authorization to access and receive this information on the owner’s behalf.

Estate planners also can use a trust or a will to spell out the disposition of personal property, including cyber assets. The advantage of using a trust is the fact that wills are public, while trusts provide privacy. As mentioned, clients should create a secure list of online accounts and passwords and refer to it in their will or trust.

Another advantage of the trust over the will: If the owner dies and has only a will as the primary document over the digital assets, the beneficiary will need a court order to obtain the authorization to gather the digital assets.


Plan now and decide who will get your digital assets, including passwords and personal identification numbers, when you die. Contact your estate planning attorney and make sure your estate plan includes instructions for your agent on how to access to your digital life. If you move, life situations change or your state passes new digital asset legislation, make sure your plan is up-to-date so your digital life will be properly transferred and protected.

Paulla is a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law* and provides quality legal counsel for all levels of complexity in estate planning, trust administration, probate, special needs trusts, elder law, and business succession and tax planning. In addition to Paulla’s experience in law, she spent nine years as an elementary and middle school teacher for the Yuba City Unified and Franklin Elementary School Districts. Paulla is married to Brad McIntire and their family includes daughters Jackie and Katie and son Zach.

Hyatt McIntire & Associates