Close to 90 percent of American adults are connecting to the internet, and in the process they are accruing a vast number of digital assets.
This can include files (e.g., emails, photos, videos and documents) as well as accounts (e.g., financial, business, social media, email, retail shopping and cloud storage).
Yet many Internet users have not thought about what will happen to their digital estates when they die or are no longer capable of managing them.
Why internet users should plan
Failing to have a plan of action can result in heirs losing access to important property that can have monetary or sentimental value. There are a number of potential barriers that can get in the way of anyone legitimately seeking access to the digital property of a deceased or incapacitated person.
To begin with, it can be hard for heirs to identify what digital assets exist and where they are. Most of us open, close and abandon accounts on a regular basis, making identifying a deceased person’s current accounts difficult. Finding passwords needed to access websites, and in some cases to decrypt files, can make retrieving digital content impossible even if one knows where it is located.
Further, current federal and state laws as well as service provider agreements can block access to the digital property of a deceased or incapacitated individual unless provisions have been made in a will or other legally binding document. Given that a recent survey found that 64 percent of Americans have not prepared a will, it seems safe to presume many internet users have not taken this step.
A new frontier
As digital assets grow to form a larger and more important part of people’s estates, addressing issues associated with providing access to digital content after death or incapacitation is growing in importance too. In order to understand whether internet users have taken steps to prepare their digital assets for this eventuality, AARP conducted a national survey of internet users age 18 and older.
The survey looked at whether internet users have thought about preparing for their digital afterlife, and what, if any, actions they have taken towards this goal. Unfortunately, the survey results aren’t encouraging. It turns out most of us currently have no plan in place for managing our digital estate. To read about the survey results and find out what steps policy-makers and internet users need to take to help address issues associated with digital estates, click here.
Neal Walters is a policy research senior analyst for the Financial Security Team who publishes on topics including information privacy and security, technology, identity theft, affordable home utilities, prepaid cards and credit reporting.