What types of digital files and assets can you leave to loved ones through your will or living trust? Digital assets include a huge range of files and records that we use in our daily lives, and not all of it can be passed on. Learn which assets can be transferred to an inheritor, and what to do with the other types of digital assets that you leave behind.
The term "digital assets" refers to all of the digital files and online accounts you own or use on your computers, phones, tablets, e-readers, and other personal devices. Digital assets include social media accounts, digital photos and videos, email accounts, online financial accounts, software and copyright licenses, and more. (For more examples, see What Are Digital Assets?)
You own some of your digital assets (for example, digital photos you took), but other digital assets are for your use during your lifetime only (for example, your social media accounts). With the former, you can make a gift of the digital asset to your loved ones in your will or living trust. With the latter, you can't—but that doesn't mean you won't have any control at all over what happens to that asset or online account when you die.
As a general rule, all digital assets that you own and that are transferrable will be included in your estate when you die. You can use your will or living trust to determine who will get such digital assets. Transferable digital assets certainly include anything that is worth money, but they also include things that may have a more sentimental value. If you own it and you can transfer it, you should be able to include it in your will or living trust.
Examples of digital assets you can leave to a beneficiary:
If you don't name a specific beneficiary for these digital assets (for example by explicitly stating in your will that you leave your digital photos to your children), they will pass to your residuary beneficiary or beneficiaries.
You might also be able use your will or living trust to transfer digital assets that you have licensed, like a domain name or a copyright, but this depends on whether the terms of the licensing agreement allow transfer at death. Check your agreements, and see a lawyer if you have concerns.
Many of your digital assets won't pass through your will or living trust—usually because you don't have the right to transfer them. Even if they have a real value to you or your family, if you don't own them or have the right to transfer them at death, you can't pass them through your will or living trust. A clear example of this is your email and social media accounts. You don't own those accounts, you just have a license to use them—and your inability to transfer your account to another person is limited by the terms you agreed to when you opened the account.
Examples of digital assets that won't pass through your will:
But even if you can't leave your email account or social media account to someone, you can still leave instructions with your executor or loved one about what you'd like done—for example, one final post, closing your account, and so on.
Regardless of whether or not your digital assets can be passed through your will or living trust, your executor will likely appreciate having access to your online accounts. When wrapping up your affairs, your executor will need to pay bills, transfer property, notify contacts of your death, and more, and having the ability to get into your accounts will make their job much easier.
For more, see Why Your Executor Needs Access to Your Digital Assets.
You can give your loved ones the information they'll need to go into your accounts and files and take final actions. If you fail to leave instructions and access information, your loved ones won't know your wishes and are unlikely to be able to get into your accounts.
The simplest way to do this is to first grant your executor the legal authority to handle your digital assets. You can do this in your will or living trust. Then you must take the additional step of leaving explicit login information (such as usernames and passwords) and directions about what to do. You can do this in a simple letter or spreadsheet, or you can get help from a program like Nolo's Quicken WillMaker, which allows you to make a will or living trust, as well as a letter to survivors. Keep the document with passwords in a secure place and make sure your executor knows where to find it. Or if you use a password manager (such as LastPass, 1Password, or Bitwarden) already, you can leave a document with the master password to your password manager. For more details, see A Plan for Your Digital Assets.
See a lawyer if you want to restrict your executor's access to your digital assets. Most states are increasing the rights of executors to access the digital assets of the deceased. As these laws develop, they could eventually make it possible for your executor to get into to your accounts even if you don't leave your login information. If you have digital assets that you don't want your executor to access, get help from an experienced estate planning lawyer who can help you protect your privacy.