Digital Asset Management in Life and Death

Dec 3, 2019 | Videos, Wills & Trusts

by ACTEC Fellows Stacy E. Singer and Suzanne Brown Walsh

Understand how to plan for your digital assets, such as photos, email accounts and passwords, during life and in your estate documents. ACTEC Fellows Stacy E. Singer and Suzanne Brown Walsh discuss documents stored in the cloud, cryptocurrency accounts, social media accounts, using a password manager and more in this informative video.


Hi, I’m Stacy Singer an ACTEC Fellow from Chicago, Illinois, and I’m here with Suzy Walsh, an ACTEC Fellow from Hartford, Connecticut, and we’re here to talk about how to manage your digital assets. So, Suzy, let’s start with the basic question: what are digital assets?

Really, they are a lot of things. They can be anything from cryptocurrency to online accounts to travel points to records that you store in your computer. Anything that’s not on paper and that you access with the computer is a digital asset.

Okay, so to use one example, how can I make sure that my family has access to, for example, my data or my photos that are either on my phone or may be stored in the cloud?

So, first think about what it is that your family would want to access. Photos are a great example. Many people have an iPhone or an Apple device; therefore, they have an Apple ID. They need to think about who can access that account and they need to provide a method for sharing it. That could be by giving a fiduciary written access to it. It could be by telling a family member or having a shared account with family members.

Okay, so what if I have some accounts that I don’t want my family to see? Something I want deleted if I die or something happens to me, so my family never gets to see it?

So that’s a great question and there are many people who have accounts that they would like to die with them. We call that a digital death and, in fact, what you should do is discuss that with your estate planner and come up with a plan; it may be asset dependent. So, a good example is Google. Google provides for an inactive account manager that you can use to provide access while you’re incapable or after you die to your Google accounts. They allow you to pick and choose in your use of that tool in granting that access between your Google accounts. So, for example, you could give your family access to your Gmail account because maybe all your travel statements and bank statements are coming in to your Gmail, and you could decline to give them access to your Google Docs account if there are private papers that you have stored there that you don’t want them to have.

So can my executor, my trustee, manage all of my online content or my blog, either when I’m no longer competent or after I die?

So, first of all, they won’t be able to manage anything unless you’ve planned for that and you’ve put that in your documents. And second, depending on the account, even if you want them to manage it, they may not be able to. So, tech companies would recoil at the notion of your managing many of those accounts. Facebook is a good example. Facebook doesn’t want anyone to manage your Facebook account. They want you to use the legacy contact tool to allow your fiduciary to memorialize or terminate the account. They view management — they being many of these social media companies- — as impersonators. But you can certainly plan for access to accounts that need to be managed with your fiduciary if it’s appropriate to grant your fiduciary access or someone else.

So, I have a lot of passwords. How should I be keeping track of all my passwords?

I’ve lost track of what the average number of passwords people have; I think it’s upwards of 75 these days, so you’re not alone. I tell clients to use a password manager because I think that’s the best way to use robust passwords, not use the ones they list every year. You know the one, two, three and “password” is the worst password. And it will allow you to give a master password to a family member, and therefore they will be able to access or delete all the accounts when you can’t do that.

So, I’ve heard a lot about encrypted data and data keys. Can you help us understand what that is and how we should be handling those keys?

Sure, that’s a great question. So, all of us who use a phone are familiar with encryption because the passcode you enter into the phone is simply an encryption key. If you have a work laptop, you’re probably required to enter an encryption key to access it, and if you don’t have the key, then effectively that device becomes the equivalent of a brick. This is particularly important with valuable data files, such as the private keys to cryptocurrency. With cryptocurrency, if you don’t have the encryption key or the private key, you lose access to that underlying currency, the crypto token, and you can’t move it to someone else. Likewise, if you’re storing documents or photos in cloud accounts and you’re accessing those accounts with a password, that’s an encryption key. If you don’t have the key, you’re going to lose access to the data and there’s actually a famous example of that: Leonard Bernstein supposedly wrote his memoir, stored it on his — I can’t remember if it was a laptop or computer — and died with that encryption key having not given anyone access. So, his memoir, which could be published and could be of value to his family, is no longer accessible.

Wow. Well, those are great stories and really helpful information. Thank you so much, Suzy, for helping us understand how to manage our digital assets.