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Death, Digital Assets and the Law: Part 1

Internet of things signed by the author


co-written by Steven Andrew Jackson, Esq. (the lawyer) and Mari Peterson, former law firm administrator (and curious tech person).

Technology’s impact  on estate planning and administration

This is part 1 of a 5 part series exploring technology’s impact on estate planning and administration. Let’s begin with new terms entering the digital world: Legacy Heirs, Digital Assets, Digital Heirs.

Legacy Heirs? Digital Heirs? Digital Assets?

Over recent months we’ve seen the introduction of terms like ‘legacy’ heirs, ‘digital heirs’ and digital assets. Technology has caught up with death and people are trying to figure out how to handle their deceased loved one’s personal accounts like Facebook or get access to online bank accounts. This is made all the more difficult by passwords or not knowing that these online accounts exist or where they are.  

Of course, Google, Facebook and Apple are top players since they are the largest holders of online accounts and our data – from music, videos, and photos to online programs used to manage our personal and professional lives like email communication, calendars and document storage.  Today there are roughly over 500 million gmail accounts and Google owns 75% of the search market. There are over 1 billion active YouTube users, 1.19 billion monthly Facebook users and over 500 million Apple users.

Even the former Secretary of State and current Presidential candidate was keeping top secret matters on a personal server. More and more of our personal data is archived by one of these Internet companies. Add to that the availability of wi-fi and Internet access anywhere, encouraging more of us to bank and conduct our business online. 

Social Media Lawsuits

With all this data and online activity you knew there would be lawsuits.

It’s Personal

Recently family members have had to go to court to close and deactivate Facebook accounts of their deceased loved ones stating it causes too much pain to continuously see reminders as people post on their pages each anniversary. What? Going to court to shut down a Facebook page? Who would have thought we would have to go to such extreme, costly measures.  In this one example we see the issues: right to access upon death; privacy; and ownership. But what about when there is value in those accounts?

It’s Valuable

We’ve all heard of these millennial YouTube stars making millions creating videos appealing to teens and twenty year olds but there is also serious money being made even by baby boomers.  Mr. Ashbach is a 62 year old pilot who became a photographer and took great photos from his travels on the side. His fabulous wife suggested he share them on Pinterest.  The guy must be very talented. Today he has 1.6 million followers and earns roughly $10,000 a month from Pinterest. Yep. Let me repeat that. 10 Gs!  Not bad for a semi-retired pilot.  Not only does this guy take great photos but he’s smart, too, and adjusted his estate plan by creating a company where his social media accounts are registered and owned by his wife and son. (click here to read story).

You may be creating value and not knowing it. We recently wrote an article where credit card companies now allow you to name a beneficiary of your credit card points (Click here to read it). Heck, those things are valuable – free meals, airline travel and sometimes even money in the form of cash rebates.

This takes assets from assets to “digital” assets because you can’t touch them like you can jewelry, real estate or cash.  It raises great questions, like:

  • Who owns it?
  • Where is it?
  • Can it be passed down to your loved ones?
  • Can you and how do you designate an “heir” to your digital assets or online accounts?
  • What if you don’t want to give access to certain online accounts?
  • Do you want your executor to also be your digital heir?
  • Where do devices fall into this matrix?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves….

All of these bring up some important issues that we are only just now really beginning to address.  It turns out that estate planning has a few gaps in this new digital world where everything is connected. We call it the “Internet of Things” of which the illustration at the beginning of this post shows how we are on the way to our homes, our bodies, our business and our lives being connected.  In the next few weeks we will be writing about these issues, legal solutions and what’s happening specifically in our home state of North Carolina as an example.

Specifically, we will address:

  • How is estate planning (and administration) being impacted by our digital world?
  • Are their gaps in the current laws and if so, what are they?
  • How are estate planning laws being updated? Is there a solution?
  • What is the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act of 2015?
  • What is the status of North Carolina’s estate planning laws on Digital Assets?
  • What can you do?

Next week: Part 2 – Digital Assets from Estate Planning Lawyer’s Perspective