In the digital age, people keep increasing amounts of information stored in the cloud or on personal devices. Surviving relatives can face extreme difficulty in tracking down digital assets that are part of an estate. In some cases, people do not want relatives to have access to certain digital information but have not clearly specified their wishes.
Examples of digital assets could include:
- An IRA through an online investment brokerage
- A bank account through a bank with no physical locations, such as Ally Bank
- An Instagram account with hundreds of thousands of followers
- Bitcoin funds
- A website that sells products and has many site hits every day
In many cases, websites do not allow relatives to access a deceased person’s accounts, even with the account owner’s written permission. If you are not the account owner and do not have the password, you are out of luck. Further, sometimes relatives want to keep a Facebook account or online presence active after someone passes away. It is not always clear who makes the decision to keep the account open or to post messages there. Relatives may end up with tied-up assets that cannot be accessed at all or distributed according to a will or trust.
To help family members gain access to valuable online assets, California has a new law focusing on estate planning for digital assets called the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. (Probate Code §§ 870-884.) The law describes how you can designate specific people to have access to your online information. It emphasizes use of online tools to specify “designated recipients” of the information.
An online tool might be a form that you fill out through the social media platform or financial institution’s website. It could be similar to the online form offered by many brokerages and insurance companies to designate beneficiaries of IRAs or life insurance. While you are estate planning, look into the availability of online tools for the digital services you use.
Not all services have these online tools available. If a designated recipient is indicated using an online tool, that designation takes precedence over any designation made in a will. If no designated recipient is indicated or the service does not have a tool to do so, then you can designate someone in a will, trust, or power of attorney. In fact, it is a good idea to designate someone in your estate planning documents anyway, in case your relatives cannot locate or access the online tool.
Still, even with the new California law in place, some online services may deny designated recipients access to important information about a deceased person due to terms of service. Take the time to leave your family a way to access your passwords, account numbers and bank information for online accounts, and other digital-only items.
Planning your estate? Look to Janet Brewer, Esq. for thorough and thoughtful estate planning advice. Janet’s more than 20 years of legal experience will give you confidence and peace of mind. To schedule a “Get Acquainted” meeting, visit Janet's website or call her office at (650) 469-8206.