Consumers are spending an unprecedented amount of money buying things they will never actually touch. An estimated $4.5 billion was spent on e-books last year alone. No doubt billions more was paid out for music, movies, and other stuff that exists only on the computer or in the cloud.

The benefits of this digital shift are enormous, but it leaves many unanswered questions in estate planning. Namely, what happens to cherished intangible assets after you die?

Legally, our e-things are called digital assets. If you own digital assets, you’d think they would be transferable. It’s not so simple. Problems arise with those long, fine-print digital contracts everyone approves and no one reads. Your purchased e-materials may or may not technically be owned by you. They may only be licensed for your personal use.

While there are a few states that have passed digital-asset legislation, Nebraska has not yet. There is, however, a bill stuck in committee. In the meantime, the prospect of leaving your virtual goods to your kids or grandkids remains a tricky proposition. The following are ideas to consider while we wait for legislative solutions:

  • E-books. One of every four books sold in the U.S. is an e-book. Amazon says that Kindle books can be willed. Many e-books, however, are licensed, and not sold. Consider leaving the physical device your e-books are on (computer, iPad, etc.) to your heir. This could easily be done with one of our “Personal Property List” forms. 
  • E-mail. 70% of Americans use e-mail. For most, the contents of our accounts are crucial for our work and personal lives. Don’t plan on internet providers revealing your passwords. In addition, unless you have legal consent and the password, Yahoo will only delete the account. Presently, your best bet is to specify in your will who should, or who should never, see your e-mail.
  • Social Media. Facebook has more than 1 billion users, and more than 20 million people use Twitter. Social media has actually become part of our legacy. Currently, Facebook leaves pages up as memorials, but will not grant account access. Twitter will transfer accounts, but only if you jump through legal hoops. Your best bet is to leave instructions in your will on how you want your account handled: closed; expunged of certain private information but allowed to continue; maintained but with a post added which explains that you have passed away; or printed out and given to a family member. Warning: Do not list your accounts and their passwords in your will. The will becomes a public document when your estate is probated. It is better to use a form like our “Virtual Contact List” for your personal records. 
  • Financial Accounts. These may be difficult for heirs to access even with estate planning documents in hand. If you have money in an online account that does not mail you printed statements, make sure that this account is clearly listed in your estate documents so that it is not overlooked by heirs. You could also add a spouse or heir as joint owner of your online account so that this person could take over the management of the account if needed.

If you would like free copies of the forms discussed above, or have questions, simply contact Steffens Law Office.

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