Don’t Think You Need A Digital Asset Estate Plan? Think Again!

The nature of property ownership has, like so much else, been revolutionized in the age of the internet. For less than 50 years, people have owned assets that exist only on a computer server. Some individuals have realized tremendous profits from these types of assets, which has only been made possible by such technological innovations. Recently, for example, a player of the video game Second Life flipped a piece of the game’s virtual real estate for a cool six-figure profit.

The law moves slowly. Before our legal system can deliver justice to the digital world with the same efficiency as it does in more well-established areas, there will inevitably be stories that illustrate the fact that the law lags behind societal changes.

One such story is that of Peggy Bush, a widow who wanted to play a card game on her late husband’s iPad. She could unlock the iPad but didn’t know that her husband had a second password for his Apple ID, which was needed to access his app purchases. Peggy called Apple expecting to resolve the issue quickly, only to be told that she would need to come back with a court order before Apple would reset the password for the account. Peggy was especially irritated because she had been able to transfer the title of the house and the car using only a death certificate and her husband’s will. However, she could not access her husband’s apps…

In addition to the practical uses of family member’s old accounts, social media presence, and other internet profiles, these Digital Assets hold great sentimental value to the family and friends of the recently deceased. In 2013, Eric Rash, the son of Ricky and Diane Rash, committed suicide. Searching for answers and seeking to preserve the memory of their son, the parents sought access to his Facebook account. Facebook denied their request.

This rejection sent Ricky and Diane Rash on a quest to change the legislation surrounding parental access to social media accounts. Their campaign was successful, and Virginia signed into law an act allowing for parents to generally have access to their children’s Digital Assets. Virginia is only one state, and in the majority jurisdictions, parents are not guaranteed access to their children’s online accounts.

Like the Bushes and the Rashes, the parents of Justin Ellsworth, a marine killed in action, tried to access their son’s Yahoo email account after his death. Only after a costly and time-consuming legal process, did the courts order that Yahoo must grant access to Justin Ellsworth’s parents.

All of these cases underscore the uncertainty that surrounds the access to a decedent’s Digital Assets. Legislation such as the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Access Act (“RUFADAA”), which was adopted in Colorado in June of 2016, attempts to pull the legal system into modernity, but confusion and costly legal proceedings are still the norm for families trying to gain access to their family member’s Digital Assets after their death.

In order to avoid the chaos of accessing a deceased’s Digital Assets, with the assistance of a licensed attorney, you can plan ahead with a comprehensive digital estate plan that makes your wishes clear. Whether you want your family to be able to access your online accounts or not, your decision regarding your own property should be yours. Without a plan, that decision is likely to be made in the hands of a court.