Estate Planning and “Virtual Assets” – Part 1

For many, our primary means of communication is email, often through multiple email accounts. We “tweet” about the latest happenings through our Twitter accounts. We keep in touch with friends and colleagues through social networking sites such as Facebook and Linkedin. We store family photos and other important information on a growing array of online sites. We access our financial assets, such as bank accounts and brokerage accounts, over the internet. We pay our bills electronically. We own internet domain names. In the aggregate, these “virtual assets” have tremendous aesthetic and financial value. 

Yet, when we die or become incapacitated, what happens to these assets? Who can gain access to this “virtual existence” when we’re gone?

The answer is a very complex. Most of these virtual assets are controlled by a license agreement with the provider of the online access. Such license agreements vary from provider to provider. Without careful planning, chaos may rein. Here are some key recommendations to consider:

1.      Integrate Virtual Assets into Your Estate Plan. Wills, trusts, and powers of attorney have been around for centuries. In appointing an executor, trustee, or agent under a power of attorney, you are appointing a representative that you trust to take control of your assets and follow your legal instructions. Whether dealing with virtual assets or an office building, you should appoint individuals in these roles that are both trustworthy and competent to carry out these instructions.

2.      Create a Virtual Asset Instruction Letter. A “Virtual Asset Instruction Letter” or “VAIL” will list all of your online accounts and assets, and will provide web addresses, user names, and passwords to give your designated representative the ability to identify and access these accounts. Place the VAIL in a safe location, such as a safe deposit box, that can only be accessed by your legal representative. In addition to a written list, you might consider saving the VAIL to a flash memory drive or CD which can make your representative’s access to these accounts more efficient. For assets such as email accounts, your VAIL may instruct your representative to delete the account after a period of time. Most such accounts will simply terminate after a certain period of inactivity.

Check back with WealthLawBlog.com in a few days to see additional recommendations relating to virtual assets.

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