May 09, 2005

Your Digital Assets

People are finally coming to realize that their digital assets are really assets and valuable for many reasons.  So just what happens to your digital assets when you die or if you become incapacitated?

What do you want done with your blog? 
Who knows how to get to your photos posted on the Kodak Gallery or Flickr? 
Do you want your family to read your email?
Do you have address books that are only available online?
What are the usernames and passwords to your online accounts?
Do you have any files that exist only online with a third party?
Do you have work files on your computer that should be returned to your employer?
Who gets to go through your computer and clean out any files you don't want anyone to see like a porn collection?
Who gets your iPod and the music on it?

These issues are attracting increasing attention.  The Christian Science Monitor asks Who Gets to see the email of the deceased?    Darren Barefoot wonders if it isn't time for  Digital Morticians .  Joel Schoenmeyer, a Chicago area estate planning lawyer writes about the need for a Technology Inventory as does law professor Gerry Beyer.  Darren Rowse in Problogger wonders what would happen to his blog which happens to be an income-producing asset in Blogging Fears - Death.

Just where should you put all those bits and pieces about your digital assets and your online life?  Is it your will?

Your will is not the only way or the document with which you can direct how you want things to be done after your death.  There are a lot of things that you want someone to know and a will is not necessarily the best place to tell him or her.  After all, a will is a public document.  And you certainly don't want to go to your attorney to add a new codicil every time you change a user name or password to an online account.

There is a vehicle, too little used, called “Letter to your Executor”.  It's the ultimate in do-it-yourself.  Since it is only a letter and not a will, it is not legally binding, but it is morally binding.  And it’s just the place to leave directions of how you want certain things handled after your death.  I call it the “Gift of Good Directions,” a fine complement to the Gift of Good Records, your master list of what and where everything is and who to contact. 

A digression here, to talk about the third in this trio- the Gift of a Lifetime, your Personal Legacy Archives.  Few of us will have biographers, all of us are archivists of our own lives.  Lost among the ephemera, files and shoeboxes filled with photos is the meaning and the stories.  What were the top ten highlights of your life?  What did you love and why?  Where were the "choice-points" in your life, where you could have gone either way, but chose one? And how did it turn out?  What do you regret?  What are your proudest achievements?  What's your favorite music, the moments you'll never forget?  What do you want your children to know about you?  What have you left unsaid that you want said? 

While there are few Mount Rushmore lives, Joseph Cooper says, each of us carves out a bit of history that should be put down for our own edification and for our families and friends.  For his son, he's set down his own Monuments to a Decent Life.  Ronni Bennett calls them Stories for the Infinite Future.  As one who spent much of her professional life with celebrities, she says with great authority, No Lives Are Ordinary.   

Time was when people kept journals and wrote letters  They were just like bloggers. Take Henry Thoreau.  Or Samuel Pepys.  Some, like Mark Twain, kept scrapbooks.  Others were just ordinary people, like these emigrants and pioneers, or these diarists in Britain during World War II  Ordinary letters to a new grandson written in 1918 are a precious family heirloom 90 years later.  Such journals and letters preserve personal and family memories as well as the sense of times gone by by people long gone, but not forgotten.  Some rise to become societal memories.  We can understand better what things like for Jews during World War II because we've read the Diary of Anne Frank.   

Human nature is constant, it doesn't change over time.  We experience the same emotions love and fear, gratitude and shame, as people did a thousand years ago.  It's only the people, the details and the stories that change.  But those details and those stories are what we want to pass on into the future.  It's what you want your loved ones to know.  It's what they want to know.  Only we no longer keep journals or write many letters. 

That's why many of us write blogs - to keep a record of where we were and what we thought.  The more we write, the more valuable the blog becomes and not just for its long tail.  Some bloggers show us the way of suffering with illness and facing death and they are Truly Noble and their work deserves to be preserved.  For most of us, we'd like our families or friends to have our blog after we're gone.  We don't want our blog to  just disappear into the ether.  The world will go on after you die, but not your blog unless someone pays the hosting fees.  You are the one that can decide whether your blog will have an afterlife.  Thinking ahead, Ronni Bennett has set aside money to pay for her blog host for at least a year and to download her blog to CDs for whoever wants a copy. 

Details like what you want done about your blog and your other digital assets are the sort of directions you leave in your Letter to your Executor. With a Letter to your Executor, you can update it and revise it as often as you want.  Just be sure to date it so it doesn't get confused with earlier letters.  I recommend printing it out as well to file with your other important papers.  Copies of all important papers should be kept in a steel box so that it can be grabbed in a moment if you must leave your house in an emergency.  The steel should protect your files against fires and you may want to get one with a key so you can keep it locked and safe from prying eyes.

Because it's so easily revised and costs nothing to revise, your Letter to your Executor is the also ideal document for other directions that may change on a fairly frequent basis, like the music you want played at your funeral or what you want engraved on your tombstone or small sentimental gifts you want distributed to friends.   

Once you get into it, you realize there's a whole lot of context that doesn't and will never appear in the legal documents of your estate plan.
Everyone should have a will, a durable power of attorney, and a health care proxy or power of attorney first, but once that's done, spend some time to think about the context, those details that express  Once you've formalized who you want as guardians for your children, what do you want them to pay particular attention to.  Helen Harcombe was dying of cancer, so she composed a detailed mommy manual to tell her husband things he wouldn't think about in raising their seven year old daughter alone.  No will is ever going to contain the phrase, "Bath and hair every other night, AT LEAST.  No child of mine to be smelly."  For her husband, it was "great comfort."  Her daughter Ffion said when she saw the manual, "That makes me feel a lot better, Daddy."  Any guardian, any child will be happier if they knew what you wanted them to do and pay special attention to.  A letter to the guardians of your children will be invaluable guidance.  Now this may seem a whole lot of trouble to write directions for something that will likely never happen.  So think of it as an on-going letter about what you want for your children and what you think is important at different stages in their lives  That way, you are creating something very valuable for them after you're gone, part of your personal legacy archives. Such a letter becomes a chronological record of how you saw your children as they grew up.  What grist for the mill when they start therapy or have children of their own!

Directions are important too for your health care agent.  So write a letter to your health care agent  describing how you would like to be taken care of should you fall ill and be unable to communicate.  (If you haven't executed a health care proxy, otherwise known as a power of attorney for health care, and of course you know you should, you haven't faced the grid many lawyers will present you of the almost limitless health care decisions your health care agent could be asked to make.)  A living will is almost useless because it can't anticipate the circumstances or the complicated decisions that will have to be made in your future.  That's why choosing one person you trust to act in your stead is Better than a Living Will.  More important for your comfort and quality of life are the directions you leave for your health care agent.  There's a lot of room between "doing everything" and "doing nothing."  What you consider a "quality of life" you want to hold on to is quite likely is not the same as someone else's.  But if you don't give your health care agent a clue as to what you want or just how far you want to go, you are just making it harder for them.    Again, you will never find such guidance in a legal document.  Mystic Knight wrote his directions the night before he faced an operation.  I've done mine in Living the Way Terri Was.  My health care agent says she definitely wants a playlist.  You will not find playlists in legal documents.

I expect to change my mind almost as often as I redecorate.  Think of your estate plan as the architecture.  The furnishings, the details that will change often don't require an architect or a builder or a lawyer.  They just require your keeping a Letter to Your Executor - changing it as often as you want - in a safe place.

Posted by Jill at May 9, 2005 03:09 AM | TrackBack | Permalink
Post a comment

Remember personal info?