Estate Planning in the Digital Age

Why is it important to consider computer information when engaging in estate planning?

In this age of technological acceleration, when most people are constantly increasing the daily use of their computers to include banking, personal and business record-keeping, shopping and, medical and tax information, it is essential to include conversations about computer data in estate planning consultations. Access to computer information is most often protected by not one, but a multitude, of passwords. Without finding a reliable, safe way to pass along knowledge of these passwords to your heirs, your most careful inheritance plans can be thwarted.

A case that highlights the problem occurred in the United Kingdom last year when two brothers had to fight Apple, Inc. in order to get their full inheritance. Though one of the brothers had inherited his mother's iPad, he did not have access to her password. The documents he did have -- death certificate, Will, an attorney's letter stating he was his mother's co-executor -- were all considered insufficient evidence of his mother's intention to provide him with access to her iPad. Fortunately for these brothers, Apple finally relented, saving them the expense and inconvenience of obtaining a court order. Nonetheless, this case demonstrates the problems inherent in ignoring the digital aspects of estate planning.

Managing electronically stored finances is currently vital because such digital storage is so widespread. As some estate planners have noted, a decade ago, even 5 years ago, the issue was not as crucial as it is now, and it is becoming more relevant every day. Without providing your heirs with user identification and passwords, you will certainly delay the inheritance process and may precipitate a situation in which probate is required.

Not only can the absence of password and ID information prevent financial management of a deceased monies and documents, it can prevent access to intellectual property, such as personal writings, photographs, artwork, architectural or engineering plans. 

For all of these reasons, clients must, when consulting with their estate planning attorneys, go over any and all matters that they routinely handle on their computers and make sure to record important access information. What complicates this process is that such information is not static. Because people frequently change their passwords, records must be regularly updated.

When planning your estate, it is essential to have a competent estate planning attorney at your side, one who is familiar with ever-changing, laws and computer systems. Doing this will give you peace of mind that your loved ones won't have to suffer added stress at the time of your passing and that the inheritance you worked so hard to leave them will not become part of the billions of dollars of unclaimed assets that are annually turned over to the state.

Posted in Business Law

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