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Plan ahead to protect your digital legacy

By William Bissett
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- COURTESY OF WILLIAM BISSETT
William Bissett is a certified financial planner with Pinnacle Advisory Group in Charlotte, and founder of Principled Heart (www.principledheart.com), an online tool for organizing your estate.

Sit back and think for a minute about how many usernames and passwords you have.

How many websites do you use where you store important information? Does your family know about these websites? If they do know about them, will they know the right username and password combination?

If they don’t know about them, is that important?

Over the past decade, the digital world has quickly taken over our lives. Email is replacing physical letters. Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest are frequented by people of all ages. Millions of photos are stored with Snapfish, Shutterfly or Flickr rather than in shoeboxes in the guest room. Books are read on Amazon’s Kindle and music is stored via iTunes rather than a CD or a cassette.

The digital world impacts everyone. When you pass away, the Terms of Service Agreement dictates who can have access to your account.

Oftentimes, it is no one.

Facebook allows your family to memorialize your account, which secures it and prevents anyone from logging in. Google has an inactive account manager allowing you to share your information with a designated individual after a predetermined period of inactivity. Most airlines and hotels allow you to transfer your rewards.

These steps require your family to know about the accounts you have. If they don’t, then they can’t utilize the provisions put in place. Even if they do, a memorialized Facebook account typically does not provide the access that the family wants. Facebook offers every user the ability to download their account into a zip file. But will you do that and, if so, how frequently will you do it? Do you even know what a zip file is?

On the other hand, the agreements with Apple’s iTunes and Amazon specifically state the downloaded media are licensed, and not owned by you. Snapfish has a one-year inactivity clause stating if the account hasn’t been accessed for a year, it can delete your photos – your memories.

Knowledge is key. Without your family knowing what accounts you have, they can’t understand where to search. Without knowing what your username and password is, they can’t access the information.

And without laws granting access to your digital assets, your family grows frustrated by the numerous online accounts which hold key correspondence, memories, bills to be paid and other crucial details.

There is a group of people working on a solution called the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (FADAA). It’s part of the Uniform Law Commission – which promotes uniformity of laws throughout states. Their work is important because the two primary federal laws that impact how our digital footprint passes to our heirs were both passed in 1986. That was two years after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was born.

Clearly, the legislation impacting digital assets needs to be updated. If your state passes the legislation – it has to be passed by all 50 states as it is not federal legislation – then your heirs will be able to access your online accounts without your username and password. They just need to know where you have digital accounts.

Consequently, it’s important for you to document the websites where you have an account, your credentials for those websites and why the website is important.

Remember, the information that’s important to you is also going to be important to your family. And without a plan to pass information to your family, it may not pass to those you want. It may not pass at all.

William Bissett is a certified financial planner with Pinnacle Advisory Group in Charlotte, and founder of Principled Heart ( www.principledheart.com), an online tool for organizing your estate.
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