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Digital Asset Management in Life and Death | The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel

December 3, 2019


Hi, I’m Stacy Singer an ACTEC Fellow from
Chicago, Illinois, and I’m here with Suzy Walsh, an ACTEC Fellow from Hartford, Connecticut,
and we’re here to talk about how to manage your digital assets. So, Suzy, let’s start
with the basic question: what are digital assets? Really, they are a lot of things.
They can be anything from cryptocurrency to online accounts to travel points to records
that you store in your computer. Anything that’s not on paper and that you access with
the computer is a digital asset. Okay, so to use one example, how can I make sure that
my family has access to, for example, my data or my photos that are either on my phone or
may be stored in the cloud? So, first think about what it is that your family would want
to access. Photos are a great example. Many people have an iPhone or an Apple device;
therefore, they have an Apple ID. They need to think about who can access that account
and they need to provide a method for sharing it. That could be by giving a fiduciary written
access to it. It could be by telling a family member or having a shared account with family
members. Okay, so what if I have some accounts that I don’t want my family to see? Something
I want deleted if I die or something happens to me, so my family never gets to see it?
So that’s a great question and there are many people who have accounts that they would like
to die with them. We call that a digital death and, in fact, what you should do is discuss
that with your estate planner and come up with a plan; it may be asset dependent. So,
a good example is Google. Google provides for an inactive account manager that you can
use to provide access while you’re incapable or after you die to your Google accounts.
They allow you to pick and choose in your use of that tool in granting that access between
your Google accounts. So, for example, you could give your family access to your Gmail
account because maybe all your travel statements and bank statements are coming in to your
Gmail, and you could decline to give them access to your Google Docs account if there
are private papers that you have stored there that you don’t want them to have. So can my
executor, my trustee, manage all of my online content or my blog, either when I’m no longer
competent or after I die? So, first of all, they won’t be able to manage anything unless
you’ve planned for that and you’ve put that in your documents. And second, depending on
the account, even if you want them to manage it, they may not be able to. So, tech companies
would recoil at the notion of your managing many of those accounts. Facebook is a good
example. Facebook doesn’t want anyone to manage your Facebook account. They want you to use
the legacy contact tool to allow your fiduciary to memorialize or terminate the account. They
view management – they being many of these social media companies – as impersonators.
But you can certainly plan for access to accounts that need to be managed with your fiduciary
if it’s appropriate to grant your fiduciary access or someone else. So, I have a lot of
passwords. How should I be keeping track of all my passwords? I’ve lost track of what
the average number of passwords people have; I think it’s upwards of 75 these days, so
you’re not alone. I tell clients to use a password manager because I think that’s the
best way to use robust passwords, not use the ones they list every year. You know the
one, two, three and “password” is the worst password. And it will allow you to give a
master password to a family member, and therefore they will be able to access or delete all
the accounts when you can’t do that. So, I’ve heard a lot about encrypted data and data
keys. Can you help us understand what that is and how we should be handling those keys?
Sure, that’s a great question. So, all of us who use a phone are familiar with encryption
because the passcode you enter into the phone is simply an encryption key. If you have a
work laptop, you’re probably required to enter an encryption key to access it, and if you
don’t have the key, then effectively that device becomes the equivalent of a brick.
This is particularly important with valuable data files, such as the private keys to cryptocurrency.
With cryptocurrency, if you don’t have the encryption key or the private key, you lose
access to that underlying currency, the crypto token, and you can’t move it to someone else.
Likewise, if you’re storing documents or photos in cloud accounts and you’re accessing those
accounts with a password, that’s an encryption key. If you don’t have the key, you’re going
to lose access to the data and there’s actually a famous example of that: Leonard Bernstein
supposedly wrote his memoir, stored it on his – I can’t remember if it was a laptop
or computer – and died with that encryption key having not given anyone access. So, his
memoir, which could be published and could be of value to his family, is no longer accessible.
Wow. Well, those are great stories and really helpful information. Thank you so much, Suzy,
for helping us understand how to manage our digital assets.

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