BY JENNIFER A. DAVIS
Families caring for a loved one who is incapacitated or has died are facing unforeseen difficulties when discovering the digital assets of their loved one. If these assets are addressed as part of the estate planning process, such difficulties could be lessened and perhaps completely avoided.
The way we live our daily life has changed – more and more of it is conducted online. The statistics and the news stories show that the manner in which we live our personal lives and handle our financial affairs has evolved, with a clear shift to the Internet. According to 2012 data, more than 600 million people use Facebook daily, more than 200 million people actively use one of the Google services and more than nine million people subscribe to World of Warcraft. Likewise, iTunes has sold more than 25 billion songs, Amazon has sold more than 30 million e-books, and GoDaddy has registered more than 50 million domain names. These developments are likely not a surprise. In fact, many of us are comfortable with this change; we may not have even noticed it. Digital assets are simply a part of our daily life.
News stories demonstrate how this evolution in our daily life is impacting families when a loved one has died. For example, following Robin Williams’ death, his daughter had to publically complain about disturbing images of her father that were being distributed via Twitter before Twitter agreed to remove images of deceased individuals at their families’ request. The estate planning community, as a result, must understand the impact of this societal movement on estate planning and begin to address digital assets in the plans we create. To serve our clients better and to help them avoid unfortunate difficulties after a loved one has passed or becomes incapacitated, practitioners must learn the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of the issue.
To understand fully the impact of the change created by contemporary electronic media, it is important to look at what constitutes “digital assets.” The definition itself reveals the issue with managing this type of property – there is no universal definition. Each proposed definition differs slightly from the next. Regardless, the definition encompasses a broad and diverse category of property, which will constantly change as new forms of technology are introduced.
Many times, a digital asset is best described by identifying the assets customarily considered as such. Examples include e-mail accounts, social networking accounts, photograph and video sharing accounts, online sales accounts, websites, blogs and other online accounts. It may surprise some to learn that also included are voicemail accounts, rewards and points, security systems, electronically stored music and books, some video games and related virtual assets. Clearly, computers, mobile phones and other similar devices, while tangible in form, also raise issues found with online assets. So does the information and items stored on these devices. Increasingly, financial information and accounts are located in digital form. Intellectual property rights in the assets themselves, usernames and passwords, and other security access information associated with the accounts are included. Most importantly, it includes any digital items that have yet to be developed.
Without much thought, an estate planner may assume that a client’s family will handle digital assets in the same manner as personal papers and other items of minimal value. Such an assumption, for the reasons outlined below, is not advisable.
The primary reason that planners should care about digital assets is that our clients care. Many of these assets have a clear sentimental value to them. Today, photos, videos, letters and even recipes are stored online – replacing the albums, journals and recipe boxes of the past. Blogs, websites, and social network pages may likely have a very personal value to family members, even though these items hold little financial value. If family members are unable to access these sentimental items, a deceased’s family history and possibly heirlooms, which are traditionally passed from generation to generation, could be lost.
One family had to resort to legal action to recover their son’s e-mails. After Justin Ellsworth, a U.S. Marine, was killed in Iraq, his parents sought access to his Yahoo! e-mail account to carry out Justin’s plan to create a scrapbook of his e-mails with his family and friends during his tour of duty. Yahoo! denied the family access to Justin’s e-mails, citing its terms of service agreement and a need to protect its accountholders’ privacy. The Ellsworth family was forced to obtain a court order “directing Yahoo! to provide the family with the emails.” As the Ellsworth case demonstrates, important barriers may thwart a family’s well-meaning attempts to access and control a loved one’s digital property.
The likelihood is that most of a client’s digital assets have little or no financial value. An attorney, however, should not proceed on that assumption. Doing so could be dangerous, because examples exist proving otherwise. In fact, most people value their digital assets at approximately $55,000. However, most clients – even those with a comprehensive estate plan – are unlikely to have addressed the handling of their digital assets.
The digital property may have value in the traditional sense. There may be intellectual property rights of value. The domain name itself may be valuable, and may be an asset that can be sold for a windfall. Likewise, blogs have been sold for significant value, and the blog, Web page or social media may produce a revenue stream. Lastly, these assets may have value in ways not typically considered by an estate planner. For example, a virtual sword for an online game sold for $16,000; parcels of virtual real estate were sold in 2010 for $635,000.
The value of the digital asset may also be measured in the money saved by accessing and controlling the accounts. Many people are now receiving bills electronically; payments are automatically made from accounts; and no written records exist regarding online accounts. When a loved one becomes incapacitated or dies, a family may need to act quickly to manage these accounts, ensure bills are paid and funds exist to cover these payments. Online accounts may need to be accessed to avoid fees and penalties for late payments. Failure to do so can result in a true adverse financial consequence to the family.
Every year, more people find themselves victims of identity theft. During a recent two-year period, the number of Americans who were victims of identity theft exceeded 11 million, with the financial loss from these thefts exceeding $17 billion. Moreover, the identities of 800,000 deceased Americans are targeted each year. It is believed that victims and their personal information are easily found on social networking sites. Accordingly, an incapacitated or deceased individual who cannot monitor his or her online presence or report any misuse is particularly susceptible. Moreover, certain types of digital assets, such as blogs and virtual property, may also be at risk for theft if a client is no longer able to diligently monitor and protect them. With blogs, in particular, this inability to monitor could lead to a theft of the content, resulting in violation of a copyright and destruction of its value.
A review of the applicable law will not assist a practitioner who undertakes to address the issues surrounding digital assets. Missouri currently lacks clear statutory authority for a fiduciary to carry out his or her duties with regard to digital assets, and in many instances federal law may prohibit a fiduciary from doing so.
Because of the nature of digital assets, many different areas of law may be implicated, including trademark, copyright, contract and even federal income and transfer tax laws. Two particular federal laws are dictating the rights of fiduciaries and the resolution of this issue – the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which is a part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984 (CFAA).
Generally, the SCA protects against the unauthorized disclosure of certain types of electronic communications. It seeks to protect the privacy interest of a user’s stored communications, unless a specific exception, such as the provision of lawful consent, is present. The CFAA (and its state counterparts) protects against the unauthorized use of protected computers. Both of these acts impose criminal penalties for the unauthorized disclosure of, or access to, digital assets; neither specifically addresses a fiduciary’s rights to access such communications. Accordingly, practitioners should understand the implications of the SCA and CFAA when advising clients about their digital assets.
To bring uniformity to this issue, the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act was drafted to grant fiduciaries the authority to manage, access and control digital assets. This model act does not address the ownership or distribution of digital assets if the accountholder is disabled or has passed away. Rather, it seeks to place the fiduciary in the place of the accountholder and grant the fiduciary access to such assets. This model act has been approved by the states.
Many of a client’s digital assets are governed by a terms of service (TOS) agreement, to which the account holder agreed when creating the account. These TOS agreements typically address when an accountholder’s rights are terminated (customarily following a set period of inactivity and upon death). Providers also customarily retain the unilateral right to amend the TOS agreement.
Importantly, under the governing TOS agreement, the accountholder’s interests are customarily non-transferrable. For example, Apple clearly states in its TOS agreement that, upon an accountholder’s death, all rights to the deceased’s account terminate – meaning that his or her music and books downloaded from iTunes are gone forever. Further, many TOS agreements expressly prohibit an accountholder “from disclosing … access information to third parties” and “prohibit third parties from accessing [the] accounts.” Accordingly, it is possible that a fiduciary, even one who has a properly prepared authorization, may violate the TOS agreement if he or she attempts to access the account, possibly causing the account to terminate. For example, Yahoo!’s TOS agreement directs that the account is nontransferable and that access will not be granted to a deceased’s account.
Missouri law clearly establishes a fiduciary’s duties, rights and powers. For example, the Missouri Uniform Trust Code mandates that “[a] trustee … take reasonable [actions] to… control and protect the trust property.” Further, “[a] trustee shall take reasonable steps to” collect trust property from a former trustee or other person. A fiduciary’s failure to carry out these duties could be considered a breach of trust. Under Missouri law, remedies for breach of trust include removal of the trustee, denial of compensation, damages and even possibly personal liability for the fiduciary. An agent acting pursuant to any durable power of attorney granting general powers for general purposes has authority to take any “action or power which an adult who is nondisabled and nonincapacitated may carry out.” Missouri law also holds both trustees and agents to a prudent person standard. Finally, a personal representative is charged with taking “possession of all personal property” (“except exempt property”) and administering it according to Missouri law. Missouri law, however, currently does not have specific statutory authority granting a fiduciary the right to access and manage the digital assets of an incapacitated or deceased individual. Until such legislation is enacted, fiduciaries must proceed cautiously, wading through the SCA, CFAA and TOS agreements, while carrying out the duties set forth in Missouri’s existing statutes.
For the reasons set forth above, practitioners should consider adding digital assets as a type of property to address with clients during the estate planning process. Because of its varied and unique characteristics, planning for this type of asset requires a specialized approach.
The first step should be to advise the client to prepare an inventory of his or her digital assets. This information can be handled as part of the general questionnaire presented during the intake process or as a separate questionnaire tailored specifically to this issue. The inventory should include a description of the assets and the information needed to access each one, such as location, account numbers, usernames, passwords, and answers to the security questions. This inventory should address not only online accounts and similar assets, but also the client’s actual computers, phones, and similar storage devices. Since individuals regularly update their password, move to a different provider and acquire additional digital assets, a client should be encouraged to update this inventory frequently.
Today, many bills are delivered and paid electronically; in addition, information on credit cards and loan accounts may be available only electronically. It is a wise practice for clients to memorialize any liabilities handled digitally.
A client should carefully consider where to store the completed inventory. Storage of a digital asset inventory in a safe deposit box or similar location may not be practical. Given the continuously evolving nature of digital assets, this is a list that may need to be updated frequently. The inventory could be stored digitally and protected with a password or encryption, which is generally considered to be more secure. Finally, software and web-based services are also available to store such information. Regardless of where the inventory is stored, the fiduciary should know how to locate and access it.
The client may wish to name a special fiduciary to handle these assets. It is not necessary to name an individual different from the general fiduciary designated; however, this allows the client to name an individual who has specialized skills or a better understanding of technology to better carry out the client’s wishes.
Google recently implemented the ability for its accountholders to name an “Inactive Account Manager,” and to designate what should happen to the account if the accountholder dies or is no longer able to use the account. The accountholder has two options – (1) the account can be deleted after it has been inactive for a certain period, or (2) the accountholder can designate individuals to be contacted after that period of inactivity has elapsed. Google warns the accountholder before the chosen action is taken. Similarly, a Facebook member can now designate a “legacy contact” that will have certain rights to manage the account following the member’s death. A member can also elect to have his or her account deleted at death.
Most importantly, practitioners should consider including in the financial durable power of attorney, the trust and the will a specific clause authorizing the fiduciary to handle digital assets. The authority granted to the fiduciary can be specific, limited or general. It may define what constitutes a digital asset. The clause should authorize third party providers to disclose account information to the fiduciary and permit the fiduciary to access the accounts. The fiduciary should be given authority to control and manage the digital property. Even more specifically, the fiduciary should be granted authority pursuant to the SCA and lawful consent pursuant to the CFAA with respect to the digital assets.
If the digital assets have significant financial value, a practitioner may wish to address the asset specifically in the relevant estate planning documents. The governing documents should also authorize specifically the fiduciary’s ability to retain an expert to assist in controlling and managing the digital assets.
Once the assets are identified and the proper fiduciary selected, a practitioner should review with the client his or her wishes regarding the handling and disposition of the digital assets and their content at death or incapacity. A client’s intent may differ based on the specific asset. For example, the client may wish to distribute certain digital assets and abandon or destroy others. Therefore, it is advisable to understand the client’s intent regarding the specific digital assets about which he or she has specific instructions.
These wishes should be memorialized. One option is to do so in the governing documents. Also, to maintain the privacy that is often desired with digital assets, a separate document outside of the will or trust can be used.
One version of the separate document is a written statement similar to the tangible personal property list, which specifically identifies the account, the password and other relevant information. The client’s direction regarding each digital asset and its content – including, for example, a direction to terminate an account or instructions to download and distribute the content to certain individuals – could be included. If a separate digital property list is used, it should be clearly referenced in the governing document, and family members should be aware of the list as well. No statutory authority, however, exists in Missouri to support the use of such a digital property list. Practitioners have used similar lists in connection with distributions of personal property through a revocable trust and to provide charitable gifts, despite the lack of specific statutory authorization.
Given the possibility that the list may not be legally binding, another alternative is for the client to simply prepare an instruction letter. Similar to the digital property list described above, this letter could inventory the assets and detail the client’s instructions regarding them. It may be beneficial to indicate whether any of the digital assets have monetary value and include instructions for locating the assets. The instruction letter, however, would not provide direction intended to be legally binding.
Both of the above options can be easily updated as the digital assets change. Regardless of the method selected, it should be stored in a safe location.
Companies such as Legacy Locker, AssetLock and Secure Safe are now available to assist clients with inventorying, handling and managing their digital assets. These companies allow individuals to store account information and designate individuals to whom the information will be given at the client’s death. These companies should be used cautiously. Due diligence is advisable to determine whether the company is reputable and how the client’s identity is protected. Also, the possibility exists that the company selected by the client may not exist when the fiduciary needs to use its services. Use of these services may itself violate the transfer and access restrictions in the governing TOS agreements. Lastly, the arrangement into which the client enters may actually conflict with the individual’s estate plan.
When a loved one passes, the family traditionally reviews the deceased’s personal and business papers located in his or her home, office and safe deposit box to gain an understanding of the deceased’s assets, debts and other matters of importance. Today, many families find that much of this information is not among the deceased’s papers – if such papers can even be located. Account statements or bills no longer arrive through regular mail. Checkbooks are maintained in financial software programs. Important papers, such as tax returns, are digitally stored. Locating and accessing this information can be a challenge.
Regardless, the fiduciary should follow the customary practices in administering the assets of the deceased or incapacitated individual, including his or her digital property. Even a well prepared estate plan may not prevent the fiduciary from encountering difficulties in administering these unique assets. Accordingly, a fiduciary may wish to implement the following to address any digital assets found in the estate.
If the client prepared a digital inventory during his or her life, the fiduciary may be able to identify and marshal the digital assets easily. This inventory, however, may be outdated or may fail to include recently acquired digital assets. In reviewing the inventory, the fiduciary should determine whether the deceased had a property interest in the digital asset and whether such interest can be transferred at death. It may be necessary to value some of these assets for the estate/trust inventory. If so, the fiduciary can retain a qualified appraiser to establish the digital assets’ value, particularly if an estate tax is anticipated.
If a digital inventory does not exist, the fiduciary should compile one. Locating the assets to report may be challenging, as the accounts may be accessible only online with bills or statements sent by e-mail, or the relevant information may be stored on a server or in the cloud and secured by a password. The fiduciary should review the deceased’s browser history and favorites, search for the decedent on the various search engines, and review statements and other paper records for charges and/or information relating to digital assets. If accessible, the deceased’s e-mails may include information about accounts, bills and other digital assets; however, the fiduciary must be cautious to not violate the SCA, CFAA or the governing TOS agreements. It may be necessary to hire a forensic expert to assist.
In a fashion similar to tangible assets, the fiduciary should ensure that digital assets are safeguarded. Failure to do so may result in a loss to the estate/trust. At all times, the fiduciary must be aware of the limitations imposed by the SCA, CFAA and TOS
The fiduciary should determine if he or she can access and control the asset. For example, many presume that music and other items downloaded from iTunes can be transferred at a decedent’s death to a family member; however, Apple’s TOS agreement clearly indicates that all rights are nontransferable and terminate at death. In addition to obtaining control of the digital assets, a fiduciary should consider backing-up or preserving the data of certain digital assets. This is particularly important if any possible litigation exists.
If feasible, the fiduciary should be the only party with access to the assets. The password should be changed, and all personal data should be removed. Taking these steps will help carry out the fiduciary’s duty to preserve the property and hopefully help prevent identity theft. The fiduciary should consider removing all credit card information stored online; however, many fiduciaries cancel most credit cards quickly, making this step unnecessary.
Likewise, a fiduciary should secure the deceased’s computers and other tangible devices. A computer technician may be needed in order to access the computer. The computer files and programs should be reviewed to determine the assets present and their value. As computers and other tangible devices are considered tangible personal property, absent specific instructions to the contrary, these items will be distributed in accordance with the deceased’s instructions regarding his or her tangible personal property. In such case, the fiduciary should save the digital files and wipe the hard drives.
During this process, a fiduciary may need to obtain access to, or copies of, the content stored on an online account. However, the service provider will likely be uncooperative, possibly forcing the fiduciary to obtain a court order. To avoid requesting permission from the provider, a fiduciary may wish to use the decedent’s passwords and security information. This is a particularly attractive option if the decedent gave the fiduciary the express written authority to do so. The fiduciary, however, should be cautious of any potential liability for violating the SCA, the CFAA or the governing TOS agreement.
If the deceased owned digital assets with a copyright or trademark, these rights must be protected and any acts of infringement stopped. The fiduciary could remove such assets from the Internet to preserve and protect them. If infringement is suspected, the fiduciary should report the infringement and enforce the copyright and/or trademark.
Lastly, a fiduciary should notify credit reporting agencies of the deceased’s death. Upon receipt of the notification, the agency will place a death notice on the decedent’s file.
Some accounts (e.g., online shopping accounts) should be closed as soon as possible. Likewise, any automatic debits from accounts should be stopped, and the fiduciary should request the bills be sent in a manner consistent with his or her duty.
If clear instructions exist, those wishes should be carried out. For example, if requested, a fiduciary should take down a client’s Facebook page. The various online services should be notified in a manner consistent with the TOS agreements.
It may be beneficial to consolidate some of the digital assets. Regardless, closing or consolidating these assets should be done only after the fiduciary believes that all information has been secured or saved elsewhere, all contacts have been notified, all debts paid and all receivables collected.
For better or worse, the Internet is here to stay and technology is becoming even more a part of our lives. Unfortunately, the laws governing access to digital assets have not kept pace with changes in technology. The duties of fiduciaries remain the same, and their ability to carry out these duties is not supported by Missouri law. Therefore, a practitioner must be familiar with this type of asset, what laws are implicated, why it matters, how to include digital assets in the estate planning process, and how to handle these assets as part of the administration process.
1 Ms. Davis is an officer in the Trusts & Estates Practice Group at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C. She received her J.D., cum laude, 1996, from Saint Louis University. She is licensed to practice in both Missouri and Illinois. She is a member of The Missouri Bar Digital Assets Subcommittee, which has drafted proposed legislation on this issue. 2 James D. Lamm et al., The Digital Death Conundrum: How Federal and State Laws Prevent Fiduciaries from Managing Digital Property, 68 U. Miami L. Rev. 385, 385-86 (2014). 3 Greg Lastowka & Trisha Hall, Living and Dying in a Virtual World, N.J. Law., Oct. 2013, at 29. 4 Lamm, note 2 at 388-89; 2 Frederick K. Hoops, Frederick H. Hoops, III & Daniel S. Hoops, Family Estate Planning Guide § 34:19(a) (4th ed. 2014); Michael Walker & Victoria Blachly, Virtual Assets, Tax Mgm’t Est., Gifts & Tr. J., 2011 at 1; available at http://www.nwpgrt.org/~nwpgrt/images/2014_Annual_Conference_Handouts/BlachlyWalker_Article.pdf; Kendal Dobra, An Executor’s Duty Toward Digital Assets, 59 Prac. Law. 5, Oct. 2013, at 21-22; available at http://whaleyestatelitigation.com/resources/WEL_An_Executors_Duty_Toward_Digital_Assets_Kendal_Dobra.pdf.5 Hoops, note 4 at § 34:19(a). 6 Lamm, note 2 at 390-91. 7 James D. Lamm, Digital Death: Estate Planning for Passwords, Online Accounts and Digital Property, presented at: ABA Cyberspace Law Institute, Jan. 20, 2012, at 4. 8 Gerry W. Beyer & Naomi Cahn, When You Pass On, Don’t Leave the Passwords Behind: Planning for Digital Assests, Prob. & Prop., Jan.- Feb. 2012, at 40, 41-42. 9 Lastowka, Living and Dying in a Virtual World, N.J. Law., at 30. 10 Id. 11 Id. 12 Kendal Dobra, An Executor’s Duty Toward Digital Assets, 59 Prac. Law. 5, Oct. 2013, at 22. 13 See Naomi Cahn & Amy Ziettlow, Digital Planning, Prob. & Prop., May-June 2014, at 23. 14 Lamm, note 7 at 2. 15 Id. 16 Id. 17 Cahn, note 13 at 23; Lamm, note 7 at 2. 18 Lamm, note 7 at 1. 19 See Cahn, note 13 at 23. 20 Lamm, note 7 at 2. 21 Chelsea Ray, ‘Til Death Do Us Part: A Proposal for Handling Digital Assets after Death, 47 Real Prop. Tr. & Est. L. J. 583, 587-88 (2013). 22 Dobra, note 12 at 31. 23 Beyer, note 8 at 41. 24 Id. 25 Ray, note 21 at 587; see also Lamm, note 7 at 5. 26 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2711. 27 18 U.S.C. § 1030. 28 Lamm, note 2 at 400-406; Cahn, note 13 at 23-24. 29 Dobra, note 12 at 25. 30 Lamm, note 2 at 400-406; Cahn, note 13 at 23-24. 31 Dobra, note 12 at 24-25. 32 Cahn, note 13 at 23-24. 33 Lamm, note 2 at 408. 34 Id. at 399. 35 Section 456.8-809, RSMo Supp. 2013. 36 Section 456.8-812, RSMo Supp. 2013. 37 See §§ 456.10-1001 to 456.10-1003, RSMo Supp. 2013. 38 Section 404.710.2, RSMo Supp. 2013. 39 Section 404.714.1, RSMo Supp. 2013;
§ 456.8-804, RSMo Supp. 2013. 40 Section 473.263.1, RSMo 2000. 41 The Missouri Bar is currently studying this issue. 42 Lamm, note 2 at 407, 416. 43 Walker, note 4 at 4. 44 Id. 45 Id. 46 Lamm, note 2 at 417. 47 Id. 48 Cahn, note 13 at 24-25. 49 Lamm, note 2 at 407. 50 Id. at 397; see also Walker, note 4 at 4-5. 51 Lamm, note 2 at 407, 417 (providing sample clauses); see also Cahn, note 13 at 24 (providing links to suggested language). 52 Hoops, note 4 at § 34:19(c)(i). 53 Walker, note 4 at 5 (providing sample clauses). 54 Cahn, note 13 at 24. 55 Hoops, note 4 at § 34:19(c)(i). 56 Walker, note 4 at 5. 57 Lamm, note 2 at 417. 58 Cahn, note 13 at 24. 59 Beyer, note 8 at 42.60 Hoops, note 4 at § 34:19(c)(ii). 61 Id. 62 Id. 63 Walker, note 4 at 5; Beyer, note 8 at 42-43. 64 Walker,note 4 at 5. 65 Beyer, note 8 at 43. 66 Cahn, note 13 at 25; Walker, note 4 at 7-8. 67 Walker, note 4 at 7. 68 Cahn, note 13 at 25. 69 Lamm, note 2 at 408. 70 Id. at 410. 71 See Dobra, note 12 at 29. 72 Lamm, note 2 at 410.73 Walker, note 4 at 7. 74 Id. at 6. 75 Dobra, note 12 at 27-28. 76 Id. 77 Walker, note 4 at 7. 78 Id. 79 Dobra, note 12 at 28. 80 Id. at 29. 81 Walker, note 4 at 5-7. 82 Id. 83 Id. 84 Dobra, note 12 at 27. 85 Id.; Lamm, note 2 at 420. 86 Dobra, note 12 at 31. 87 Id. at 30; Lamm, note 2 at 419. 88 Dobra, note 12 at 30. 89 Dobra, note 12 at 31. 90 Id. 91 Id. 92 Id. 93 Id. 94 Walker, note 4 at 7. 95 Id. 96 Lamm, note 2 at 399. 97 Walker, note 4 at 7. 98 Id.
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