What Happens to Your Digital Assets After You Die?

Digital Assets--RootsTech 2014-Evan Carroll

So many of us have social media accounts that have become an important part of our life. Some have only one account but many have more. We are so digitally connected that we sometimes feel like we are living in a virtual world. Our daily lives are recorded as we post what we ate, how we felt, where we went, what we did, and of course, announce the registered events of life (i.e., births, marriages, and deaths). But, have you considered what happens to this information when you die?In a recent lecture given at RootsTech 2014, Evan Carroll, one of the authors of Your Digital Afterlife, said that as we invest more of our time creating a digital life we curate something of value to leave to our posterity. Just as a physical heirloom holds at least some sentimental value, so do the accounts we are creating. Carroll showed an diagram representing the photographic holdings of the Library of Congress, Instagram, Flickr, and Facebook. By far, Facebook is the largest repository of photographs. And, it’s not just photographs, it’s history!

There are four types of digital assets Carroll outlined:

  • Contents of Computers and Devices - desktops, laptops, tablets, mobile phones
  • Email - incoming mail, stored mail, sent mail
  • Social Networking and Websites - Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, LinkedIn
  • Online Business - marketplaces such as eBay and Etsy, blog advertising, affiliate programs, PayPal, digital currency such as Bitcoin

Then, Carroll outlined the four issues that we must consider:

  • Awareness - Do heirs know about the digital asset or account?
  • Access - Do heirs have the appropriate credentials or means to access the account?
  • Rights - Do heirs have the right to take control of or access the account?
  • Preservation - What is the best way to ensure our memories are available to the generations to come?

Carroll says that there are many approaches to solve this problem:

  • Constructing legislation that will govern digital assets,
  • Understanding the terms of service,
  • Using traditional estate planning,
  • Obtaining digital estate planning tools,
  • Finding digital preservation solutions.

Currently, less than half of states within the United States have digital asset laws established; some are just propositions and at least one law only provides partial coverage. Connecticut state law only governs the decedent’s email. Carroll discussed the work of the Uniform Law Commission, which according to its own website, “provides states with non-partisan, well conceived, and well drafted legislation that brings clarity and stability to critical areas of state statutory law.”

Carroll recommended that everyone understand the terms of service (ToS) with each provider. He gave the example of a Yahoo account where the ToS states that there is “No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability….” It goes on to say, “Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.”

He gave examples of how to word the directives in traditional estate planning. He also discussed digital estate planning tools, such as SecureSafe and Legacy Locker. He also gave examples of digital preservation solutions, including AfterNote, eterniam, LifeStory, and GEN-ARC.

Carroll gave a number of suggestions of what to do now. He encouraged individuals to have an understanding of the law and terms of service for each provider. He admonished individuals to make sure that their digital assets are included in their estate plan and to back-up and preserve digital mementos. He commented on the need for individuals to be educated in file formats, metadata, and storage media. He said that organization now is the key for the future curators of your collection to understand its value.

Carroll closed his presentation with a quote by Chuck Palahniuk from the novel Diary, “ We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”

Lynn Broderick (https://thesingleleaf.wordpress.com/) is a writer by birth, a teacher by profession, and a researcher by passion. She enjoys researching individuals of the past in the context of family, community, and social history. Known as the Single Leaf, she combined her childhood memories of football and genealogy to create genealogy football and works with her team to win their family history bowl each year. She loves to coach people on how to enjoy pursuing their family history and has done so for over 25 years.

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