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By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®

Last year, my brother-in-law passed away. A pretty tech savvy seventy-something, he used computers a lot for online bill-paying, online shopping, and financial account access. As family members gathered from points all across the U.S., I observed his sons trying to make sense of missing or illegible usernames, passwords, and security questions. It was a real “teachable moment” for me as I saw first-hand what happens when people pass away without a list of their digital assets.

Photo by Wilson Hui (Creative Commons License 2.0)

Photo by Wilson Hui (Creative Commons License 2.0)

The term “digital assets” refers to personal information stored electronically on either a computer or an online “cloud” server. Anyone who uses e-mail, has a password protected cell phone or iPad, uses social media, makes online purchases, or pays bills or does banking online has digital assets. Like all Americans, military families have many digital assets that often need to be accessed far away from home. Digital assets generally require a user name, password or PIN, and/or security questions to access and can be difficult or impossible to retrieve if someone is incapacitated or passes away.

Encourage service members to take the time to record their digital assets using the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Digital Assets Inventory Worksheet that I developed. They should then keep this information in a safe place and share it only with a power of attorney, executor, and other trusted person who would need to have it. Writing everything down will also help them keep track of their digital life by itemizing account access details in one place so this information is available when needed. Below is a list of categories:

  • Electronic Devices- This category includes all of a person’s electronic gadgets including a smart phone, tablet, laptop computer, desktop computer, and external hard drive.
  • Benefit Accounts- Examples include airline miles, Amtrak railroad miles, hotel rewards program points, and online accounts for retailer reward/loyalty programs.
  • E-mail Accounts- Specific examples include Yahoo!, Google Gmail, AOL, Outlook, Hotmail, Juno, and an employer’s E-mail account.
  • Financial Accounts- This category includes bank, credit union, and brokerage accounts, and online access for mutual funds, retirement savings accounts, credit cards, employee benefit accounts, PayPal, and Social Security.
  • Online Merchant Accounts- Included here are accounts that someone creates to make online purchases from any retailer. Specific examples include Amazon, Blair, Chadwicks, eBay, Etsy, Zappos, and Wal-Mart.
  • Organization Accounts- Include here access information for professional societies, membership organizations, and personalized charitable organization donation web pages such as those for American Cancer Society fundraisers.
  • Photography and Music Accounts- These are web sites where people store often irreplaceable family photos and music. Examples include Instagram, Snapfish, Flickr, and a digital music library.
  • Publication Accounts- This category includes online access to newspapers, magazines, and blogs.
  • Social Media Accounts- In this category are various types of social media that often include intellectual property and personal photographs. Examples include Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+.
  • Video Accounts- This category includes web sites, such as YouTube and Vimeo, that are used to store videos that people create for personal or professional use.
  • Virtual Currency Accounts with Cash Value- Many people have digital currency with real U.S. dollar currency value stored in web sites such as Bitcoin, Farmville, Second Life, and World of Warcraft.
  • Web Site Accounts- This category of digital assets includes domain names, hosting services, online business accounts, and cloud storage sites such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Apple iCloud.

Once military families have inventoried their digital assets, they are not quite done. The final step is to include specific language in estate planning documents (e.g., will, trust, and power of attorney) that authorizes a fiduciary to handle digital assets, as well as tangible assets, in the event of their death or incapacity. Digital assets should be referred to in a will, as someone would similarly do for a list of untitled personal property. However, do not include them in a will. A will becomes a public document when someone dies, which will not keep digital asset data secure.

This post was published on the OneOp blog on August 11, 2015.