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Preserving a Digital Legacy: Estate Planning in the Age of Facebook

A thorough review of digital assets from e-mail archives to business records should be a part of most estate plans.

August 22, 2010 ( As people handle more and more of life's affairs on the Internet, new categories of assets and information must be considered in any comprehensive estate plan. From creative works, photographs, and personal history to financial data, messages, and business records, a wide range of digital information should be inventoried and assessed to ensure its proper destination and control in the event of the creator's death or incapacity.

As an example, a person entering his or her fifties may have a dozen or more years of personal and professional correspondence stored in a Yahoo or Hotmail account, with perhaps a few years more in an AOL account that is never used anymore. Maybe these archives have value as a source of business contacts and account histories, or perhaps the account holder just wants to ensure that only a particular trusted friend or family member has access to this legacy. A Facebook page dedicated to a particular hobby or organization could be turned over to the control of a colleague, or the future value of a Twitter account or blog with particular expertise that has thousands of followers could be designated to finance an educational trust or other beneficial purpose.

Information stored on personal computers must also be considered. A designer, writer, or artisan who has thousands of images and files relating to processes and research should plan for the future of everything he or she has compiled. In some cases, parties may want to direct a "digital" personal representative or trustee to destroy certain records or eliminate accounts. Just as important, family photo albums seldom occupy broadleaf books anymore -- thousands of fresh snapshots of grandchildren and scanned images of past generations may be tucked away on hard drives, CDs, or online storage. A bit of fore-thought now can prevent confusion about or accidental loss of digital assets down the road.

Taking Charge by Reining in Uncertainty

Most estate planning clients will immediately focus on the items of major value in their lives, like real estate, pensions, and investments, as well as antiques and other tangible personal assets. But as every aspect of our personal lives and careers becomes more transparent and indelible, the need for a broader view of assets has arisen. An attorney who has experience with your full range of legal options for employing a will, trust, or other strategy can be the first step toward sensible estate planning.

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