Estate Planning / Part 1: Digital “Afterlife”

Amara Rose September 2, 2014 4

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Senior Facebook AccountEven seniors who carefully plan for the disbursal of their worldly assets can leave beneficiaries arguing about who is really entitled to Aunt Betty’s antique rocker or mom’s diamond ring. But until now, no one has disputed who owns a family member’s Facebook account.

Granted, it seems strange to think about someone inheriting or bequeathing a bunch of pixels. It sounds like a digital version of, “I leave my college term papers to my brother Bill and my high school poems to my sister Sarah.” But unlike yellowing notebooks of cherished prose or poetry, digital media has a life of its own, so it is important for reverse mortgage professionals — and anyone else who works with seniors — to be aware of this relevance in terms of estate planning, so you can refer seniors with online accounts to an appropriate estate planner or other financial planning professional.

In the cyber age, anyone who uses the Internet leaves a digital legacy — often remarkably large, and eternal for as long as the Internet exists. Because the concept of an online legacy is so new, and because seniors have joined the cyber ranks in droves, the question of who owns this “digital afterlife” is still a matter of dispute, as one grieving mother who sued Facebook for access to her deceased 22-year-old son’s account can attest.

At issue is privacy versus sentiment, though in some cases an online account, such as a popular blog, may be a financial asset as well. While the courts decide what new legislation will apply to our digital footprint, cyber savvy seniors and those who financially advise them would be wise to consider this question when they’re creating or revising their will, or discussing how they plan to distribute their more tangible assets.

A key question for a senior (or anyone, of any age, since death can come without warning) to ask is, How would I prefer my online presence to be handled once I die, or if I am no longer able to manage my cyber accounts? The more specific someone can be about what they would like done with their email, online photo albums, social media accounts, blogs, website(s), etc., the less likely their digital footprint will haunt those who remain — or deny access to potential memories that can soothe grieving loved ones.

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4 Comments »

  1. Micheal Truitt September 3, 2014 at 9:00 am - Reply

    Ms. Rose,

    HECM World sent out your Estate Planning/Part 1: Digital “Afterlife”. Fascinating, interesting, and today’s reality.

    May I print out several copies for my Sunday School class? My age group is 55-65; as well as being a reverse mortgage advisor for 10 years, I live it also.

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Amara Rose September 4, 2014 at 7:29 am - Reply

    Hi Micheal,

    We’re delighted to have you share the blog post with your class! Thanks for spreading the information to a broader audience.

    If you’d like a copy of the article as a Word doc just let me know.

    Warmly,
    Amara

  3. James E. Veale, CPA, MBT September 5, 2014 at 9:21 am - Reply

    It is good Ms. Rose brings this up.

    As to the appropriateness of non-attorneys bringing this up as a subject for a Sunday School class for those over 55 years old to delve into is a very interesting subject in itself but outside the scope of this blog.

    Identifying novel property and placing it within an estate plan is what estate planners do. The trouble is upon the death of the client is the Social Media account considered the “property” of a decedent under state law. If not, how can it be inherited?
    ,
    The questions of what is property and to whom does it belong will always be evolving. However, many times that issue is answered in the terms and conditions users agree to. Answering those questions in the framework of controlling state law seems to be the starting point. (Life is rarely as simple as one wants it to be.)

    A lot of time, money, energy, and relationships can be saved, if the heirs and living client can determine if the property has any monetary or potential monetary value. If the monetary value of an asset (particularly intangible assets) is de minimus, then one must decide what its non-monetary value is to heirs and potential heirs. Many times, the importance of family history is not as important to children as it is to grandchildren. Since non-monetary value may be the significant value of some novel items, that value can change over time so that individuals should become knowledgeable about how heirs and potential heirs view such items at regular intervals and adjust the estate plan accordingly.

    (The opinions expressed in this comment are not necessarily those of RMS or its affiliates.)

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