Do You and Your Aging Parents Have a Digital Estate Plan?

ImageYou may be comfortable that your have your estate plan in order. You have a will, a durable power of attorney, a living will and a health care proxy. But do you have a digital estate plan?

In the past, we kept albums full of snapshots, vinyl records and shoeboxes full of correspondence. Now our photos are all on Flickr and IPhoto, our music is downloaded from ITunes and our correspondence is email via Yahoo or Google. Naomi Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University, stated that most adults have 20-25 accounts on the internet. And many of those accounts are for banking or investments.

Have you given instructions to your family on what to do with your internet accounts if you should die? And do they even know how to access those accounts? User names, passwords, internet addresses?

The family of Ricky Rash, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2011, discovered how difficult it was to recover information from their deceased son’s internet account. In an effort to understand why he had taken his own life, they requested but were refused access to his Facebook account.

Facebook claimed that according to the Stored Communications Act of 1986 – the federal law that governs the protection of a person’s electronic data – even the account of a minor is protected from access by his parents or anyone else.  Other sites and providers interpret the legislation this way, making access all but impossible.

There are only five states that have taken any steps to help recover the internet data of a deceased person—Indiana, Idaho and Oklahoma legislation covers social media and blogging accounts, while Connecticut and Rhode Island legislation covers only email.

What does this mean for you? It is critical that you create a digital estate plan. The listing of internet accounts needs to be comprehensive. Information must include:

  • the name of the account
  • the contents of the account
  • the URL address
  • username
  • password
  • instructions for the disposition of the account including the person to oversee such disposition.

I have created a new spreadsheet to gather this information. Email me at rmauterstock@gmail.com and I will send it to you.

There is a whole new industry that has been created to service your digital estate including legacylocker.com, a new digital estate planning service. You can create an account and then enter your user names, passwords and wishes for each of your digital assets. You can specify an heir for each account; Legacy Locker will provide heirs with information after the account holder’s death is verified.

There are also online memorial services to celebrate your client’s life, including www.Bcelebrated.com, and www.MyWonderfulLife.com. These services enable your clients to create their own memorials before they pass away. Facebook and Twitter also offer these services for family members.

The importance of having a digital estate plan will increase as more and more of our assets (and access to assets) are online. Gradually laws will evolve to give family members access to deceased loved ones’ accounts. It is important to prepare your clients for the disposition of their digital assets now so that family members will not be unpleasantly surprised when they attempt to uncover them.

If you want to explore digital estate planning in more detail read Evan Carroll’s excellent book Your Digital Afterlife.  This book was the source of many of the sites I mention in this article.

Don’t Darken the Twilight Years of Your Parents’ Lives

Some people refer to old age as the “winter” of one’s life. But that doesn’t mean our elderly parents’ lives have to be dark, cold and lonely. There’s so much we can do to keep the sparkle in their lives, but we must cover all the angles.

There are a number of problems that adult children might come across when trying to help their elderly parents. First and foremost, parents will always view their children as just that – children. It is very difficult for them to imagine a scenario where they become dependent on their offspring. This can make them defensive and difficult to deal with. Another issue is that elderly parents, for one reason or another, are not always fully open about medical, financial and other important issues. This can lead to great strain on the family later, when action needs to be taken but the children are unaware of vital details.

In their old age, parents might have increasing trouble with everything from medical and financial needs, through to everyday tasks like shopping, laundry, cooking and cleaning. And if children are in full-time work themselves, with families of their own, care for their parents might just be the final straw that breaks their backs. But there are ways children can help their parents without being impacted so much. First, one needs to know all the details of their parents’ habits, needs and lifestyle. Look for tell-tale signs that they are struggling; are they keeping enough food in? Are there household tasks being left undone? What medications are they taking? What are their effects? Details such as these will help in deciding the best course of action.

Nursing homes are often the first thing people jump to when care for their parents is needed. However, the fact is, many elderly people do not need nursing homes. Retirement villages are alternatives to nursing and care homes and give the elderly all the living assistance they need, while allowing them to maintain privacy and independence. They can improve their health with exercise, good diet and a generally more positive outlook. Such communities allow them to be surrounded by friends, have professional assistance on hand when they need it, and not feel like they are a burden on their children

For many parents, being looked after by their children is unnatural and undesirable. Communicate with your parents and you will understand how to both please and help them.