How to Deal with Digital Assets in Probate

digital assets

In estate planning, an executor is responsible for notifying the beneficiaries, concluding unfinished business, and managing all remaining assets of the decedent. This can be a daunting task, but when you consider how much of our lives and transactions are carried out online, it becomes even more complicated. For this reason, you might consider also using a digital executor along with a traditional executor to help finalize your affairs. Your executor can also serve as your digital executor if he/she has the technical knowledge and expertise.

In Texas, digital assets are all electronic records or information, which includes:

  • Email accounts
  • Social media accounts, such as Facebook or Instagram
  • Blogs
  • Cloud storage accounts
  • Online accounts
  • Online documents
  • Online photos
  • Online music files

A digital executor would not only be responsible for these accounts, but also such accounts as:

  • Online bank accounts
  • Credit card and debit cards
  • Cryptocurrancy accounts
  • Money management accounts
  • Business related account

All of these must be managed until it is time to close them completely. Having a digital executor who is familiar with these areas not only saves the traditional executor time, but also helps if any of them become subject to probate. Often places like banks and insurance companies will only work with the traditional executor in an actual building, but with proper authorization, the digital executor may be allowed to take this task off their hands. The two could work together, helping things move along faster and smoother.

If you decide to use a digital executor, here is some information that would be vital for them.

Make a list of your usernames, passwords, PINs, safety passwords, etc. and make sure either your digital executor or a trusted friend gets it in a document, spreadsheet, or letter separate from the will. If you use a password manager such as LastPass, 1Password, or Bitward, make sure they receive the single master password. Keep this information separate from the will. If the will must go through probate, it, and your passwords, will become a public document.

Be sure you they have all information on accounts such as:

  • Laptops, cell phones, and tablets
  • Email accounts
  • Photo storage sites
  • Social media accounts, such as Facebook and Instagram
  • Financial sites, such as banks
  • Retirement funds
  • Mortgage payments
  • Companies with automatic bill-paying
  • Software applications, such as tax returns
  • Internet service providers

Be sure to state in your will that your digital executor has the authority to access all of these accounts in case it is needed.

When it comes to accounts, there may be things you want your loved ones to have, such as photos or videos you've kept in online albums or music you have purchased. These are assets you own outright or are transferable. You may leave these to them in your will, but you must leave the login information that goes with it with your digital executor (not in the will!). Otherwise, they will have to go to probate court to get it, which would take time and money.

There are some files, however, where ownership transfers back to the provider upon your death, such as email accounts, social media accounts, and apps on your phone and all the information they contain. If your digital executor has your login information for your accounts, they may still access them and follow your wishes on each account. With Facebook, you might want someone to post an announcement about your death, then leave it open as a sort of visitation book for friends to write messages to your family, then have it deactivated completely. You may also want your digital executor to take advantage of Facebook's Legacy Contact, allowing them to archive your account. Your Twitter/X, Instagram, and Google sites will need to be deactivated completely. Your digital executor can access any email accounts and send or copy anything they think family members might want to keep for sentimental reasons, such as letters or pictures before deleting the account.

If you die without leaving login information to your digital executor, Texas has a “Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act.” Depending on its policies, a company will work with your digital executor, allowing them access to your accounts, but only accounts pertaining to you. Many email accounts will be deleted after a specified period of time, and your digital executor will be hard pressed to retrieve information your family might want before then.

Your online life is more than bookkeeping and Facebook. There may be online groups you belong to that you want contacted. Are you a member of an internet medical support group? A dog breed fan group? A church group? Do you see an online therapist? Do you have friends you'd like notified of your passing? Make sure you give a list of any online friends and contact people for groups to your digital executor so these people don't find out about your death by word of mouth.

Being the executor of an estate is a difficult job. With today's technology, it almost seems like we live two lives, one face-to-face, and the other on the internet. A traditional executor and a digital executor can work together to make the process go more smoothly and assure your wishes are overlooked.