By Associate Editor Kevin McCann
In 2007, a devoted World of Warcraft player decided it was time to put down his virtual crossbow and axe and sell his player account. Given the amount of time put into leveling up the abilities and gear of the character, the account was in high demand and sold for 7,000 Euros (approximately $9,000). What if before the player decided to sell this he experienced an unfortunate real life death? Most likely there would be no provision in his last will and testament stating what to do with this asset, and the account would have been deleted and the potential money lost.
While this is an extreme example of protecting a digital asset, estate planners and lawyers indicate that few people give the new reality of digital assets and online accounts consideration when drafting their wills. There is a range of issues to contemplate involving electronically stored items, such as preserving online photos, projects and personal records to how you would want your family to manage your social media accounts. A survey by McAfee revealed that U.S. consumers value their digital assets, on average, at nearly $55,000, with approximately $19,000 attributed to personal memories (photographs and videos) alone. A living person would certainly want to determine the distribution of these electronically stored personal memories just as if they were photos in an attic.
In addition, social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter now have deceased user policies. Both policies allow interested parties to select one of two options: either delete the user account entirely or save the account in order to memorialize the deceased and allow others to interact with his or her preserved account. (For an interesting look at the differences between the two policies, see http://news.cnet.com/8301-27076_3-20013219-248.html). One could see a situation where a person would want his account deleted to save his family embarrassment, or the opposite situation where a person would want his family to continue to interact with his account through the grieving process after his death. This would be another consideration to contemplate when drafting a will.
Several states have enacted legislation that pertains to post-death access of digital accounts. For instance, a New Jersey bill was introduced in June of this year that would grant the executor or administrator of an estate the power to take control of any account of the deceased person for social networking, blogging, or e-mail service websites. However, many of the states’ legislation specify that the deceased must have designated the representative in writing prior to the death. The U.S. General Services Administration recommends people set up a “social-media will,” and even go as far as naming a separate “digital executor” who is more up to speed on technology innovations and is more qualified to oversee the administration of the deceased’s digital assets. In addition, estate planners advise that the probate process would take considerable less time if the devisee were to include in his will a list of all accounts, passwords, and security question answers. Otherwise the executor would have to go through the process of submitting death certificates and relationship authentication to each of the websites.
The internet has changed the way society communicates and expresses itself, and various legal issues arose with this modernization. The protection of online assets at death is now a growing concern, with states just beginning to recognize the need for legislation. As the internet continues to reinvent itself with new services to better connect the world, so to must the estate planning process strive to keep up with these innovations.