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Estate planning in the electronic age

Over the years, the American people have moved huge portions of their lives to the Internet. From socializing with friends and business associates to shopping and banking, people spend a great deal of time on the Internet. As part of this shift, "digital assets" have emerged. Some New Jersey residents may wonder how to address these assets as part of estate planning.

Digital assets are not only monetary; the term can apply to anything stored on the Internet, such as videos, emails, photographs, playlists, medical records or tax records. This list gets longer as more financial institutions encourage people to sign up for online banking and to obtain electronic statements. These sites require usernames and passwords, some of which have special requirements. A comprehensive estate plan should include lists of these accounts and the required access information, such as the website address, user name and password.

Research shows that more than 60 percent of Americans do not have a written will. When a person dies without leaving written instructions, the state imposes default rules to distribute assets. However, these laws were written long before the Internet and do not address digital assets, such as who should get access to a person's Facebook account following death. Without a comprehensive list of accounts, a person's heirs may be unaware of assets that could otherwise be claimed and may never be able to claim their inheritances.

An estate planning attorney may be able to help clients establish a comprehensive plan to ensure that any assets are distributed after death in accordance with their wishes. An attorney could also store documents in a safe place to ensure they are available when needed.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "'Digital assets': the new frontier for estate planning ", Tim Grant, May 13, 2013

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