The term “internet self” means your digital footprint or your digital identity. As a society, we are accumulating more and more digital assets. Yet, nobody thinks about “What is going to happen to my internet self?”
Nobody likes to talk about death, and less than one third of all Americans have an estate plan at all. On top of that, the legal world has yet to catch up with the technological world in regard to legislation and regulations. Laws designated to dealing with digital assets in terms of estate planning are developing even slower.
All of that amounts to a constant “ehhh” attitude when it comes to estate planning for digital assets.
Why should we plan for my internet selves? In a 2011 New York Times article by Rob Walker titled “Cyberspace When You’re Dead,” Walker wrote, “… increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff …”
According to Walker, there are “five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month … We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders.”
The question becomes then, what do I want done with all of my digital stuff?
One of the most common questions I receive as an estate planning attorney is, “Why should I plan?” My simple answer is always “Because you do not want somebody else to dictate where your estate goes.” The same holds true for digital assets.
So, how do we start planning for our internet selves? The first step to planning is to acknowledge that you do, in fact, need a plan. Once you have decided to take action, the rest of the process just involves some motivation.
The first step I would recommend is to create a list of every single one of your online accounts – bank accounts, social media accounts, blogs, Netflix, Hulu, Ebay, email accounts, etc. You do not have to list any identifying information about these accounts right off; just get a list going.
From that list, I would then go back through each account and decide what should be done with each account.
Then, once you have an idea about what you want with each account, you need to think about who you trust to ensure these desires are met. Who is going to have the wherewithal to ensure your digital accounts and files are managed properly?
Next, you should make sure that any estate planning document you have created has digital asset language included in it, with specifics about the person whom you wish to handle those assets.
Being proactive about planning for your internet self is necessary. We all have “virtual litter” as Walker called it, and it is just as important to plan for your internet self as it is for your physical self.
Do not let you internet self be left unprotected. Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney about your estate plan, including a plan for digital assets.
Rebekah Thompson is an associate attorney with Elder Law & Estate Planning Center. hiltonheadelderlaw.com