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Digital Estate Planning
Adam Kowalsky
Adam Kowalsky

Here's a Christmas tradition of mine: setting up a new account online to buy gifts; trying to pay using online banking; forgetting either/both my username/password for online banking; wrestling with ID verification process; returning to the gift website to forget either/both username/password there; repeat. It makes you miss December parking lots. Two points: (1) shop local; and (2) consider digital estate planning (DEP). With increasingly online lives, DEP addresses how we identify, access, security and deal with "digital assets" on death. Digital assets include things in your possession (e.g., photos on your computer) and things accessed through third party providers with username/password (e.g., online banking, web-based email, Facebook, etc.). Identifying the scope of your digital/online life with an inventory provides valuable information to your executor and assists in administration. Remember, we may not own everything we do online: downloadables or online subscriptions may be non-transferable licences. Ownership here is complicated and, to some extent, in flux; although, the "Terms of Use" documents (which we usually "click" acceptance without reading) should provide details to you. An executor's access could be critical. Exclusive online bills need to be received, paid and redirected; or, recall the U.S. story where a deceased soldier's family went to court to try to obtain access to email. Many websites don't have a policy for an accountholder's death. The resulting processing time creates delay and risks decay or misuse of the digital material. It may be prudent to establish a secure way to transmit to your executor usernames and passwords. However, if anyone has access to that information now, appreciate that such access ability now and at death creates security problems. A family member with access (to banking or Paypal accounts, etc.) could be a real headache for your executor who doesn't. Once digital assets are identified and secured, what should happen? Sometimes, it's easy: transfer any balance and close accounts. Still, your executor may require formal or informal direction when what to be done is less obvious or specific to content or subscriptions. Consider Facebook, which allows authorized representatives to "memorialize" a deceased user's account or delete it. Are there certain photos or emails that you want preserved or deleted? DEP is a subset of your estate planning, generally. It's the medium that poses unique challenges and there is no Canadian legislation (yet). Consider whether specific provisions should be made for your circumstances. There is value, monetary and sentimental, in digital lives. We can leave as much of an imprint in the "digital world" as in the real one.

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