The most surprising “friend” request I ever received on Facebook came from someone I knew only slightly.
That may not seem unusual, except the person was dead. When I clicked the Facebook page, which has since been taken down, I found an unusual memorial. It spoke of being glad to be free of pain and cancer, missing family and so on.
This memorial, a digital legacy, is becoming common.
That incident may seem silly to those of us who didn’t come of age in the computer era. But the question of what happens to digital assets—anything stored in electronic form—is becoming a hot topic for lawyers, trust officers and anyone who helps people do end-of-life planning. Some people’s digital assets may be worth more than their cars.
The list of things that qualify as digital assets and often don’t get mentioned in a will is huge: text documents, photos, multimedia files, user licences, profiles for online accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn) and subscriptions.
In some cases—accounts at financial institutions and rewards programs—substantial amounts of money are at stake. Or someone just may want an account or pictures taken offline.
Changes in technology are way ahead of how we think about changes we need to make in estate planning. Soon we will need to add “tech savvy” to the list of qualities we want our estate trustee to have.
Issues we need to consider include making a list of our online accounts, passwords and security questions, and where the information that will allow someone to access these is stored: computers, mobile devices, flash drives or websites.
“Normal” rules of how trustees get access to information when someone dies don’t apply to the digital world, complicating this new list of things to think about. Each company has different regulations on how it handles the situation, and standards are mostly lacking.
Google may require a U.S. court order before it will disclose any information. Yahoo allows no right of survivorship or transferability on accounts. There have been lawsuits in the U.S. over these policies.
Shoppers Drug Mart won’t allow the transfer of rewards points from a deceased person, but will allow the estate to donate them to certain charities.
One Kitchener, Ont., lawyer is now asking clients to do beneficiary designations for Air Miles points.
A handful of U.S. states have passed laws to impose some order. Nothing of the sort is in place anywhere in Canada.
An easy and important step for estate trustees to take concerning electronic assets is to notify credit agencies about the deceased’s passing. Identity fraud is on the rise, and the risks increase with the amount of online activity.
If the potential complications of all this makes your head spin, you are not alone. Please pass the Aspirin. All the more reason to think twice when you are asked to serve as an estate trustee. Turning the job over to professionals and letting them worry about navigating these complications could be money well spent.
To help you keep track of a wide range of accounts and assets, MFC offers a free, downloadable Personal Information Directory at MennoFoundation.ca/PID.
Mike Strathdee is a stewardship consultant in the Kitchener, Ont., office of Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC). For more information on impulsive generosity, stewardship education, and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit MennoFoundation.ca.
--Posted June 18, 2014