The new must-have: A digital media estate plan

Not long ago, the important details and mementos of someone’s personal life were almost always in physical form. Photo albums compiled through the years. A collection of letters carefully kept. Maybe even a diary detailing a life’s celebrations and trials.

Today, hard copies such as those are increasingly rare. Instead photos, diaries, personal communications, and countless other aspects of life, both big and small, are often kept digitally—on social media, phones, apps, hard drives, cloud storage services, and more. When a person dies, that can lead to serious complications for loved ones.

Consider the issue of passwords. It seems inconceivable that a password could stand between a family and treasured photos of a deceased loved one, but all too often, that’s exactly what happens.

It’s a shock to many that the license terms of companies like Facebook, Apple, and others include no rights of “survivorship.” According to Apple’s iCloud terms and conditions, for instance, “Unless otherwise required by law, you agree that your Account is nontransferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate your Account may be terminated and all Content within your Account deleted.”

For families of a deceased loved one, the consequences can be devastating at worst, inconvenient at best. What to do, for instance, with the Facebook page of someone who’s died? How can years of family photos be retrieved from the deceased’s iPhone? What should be done with a loved one’s emails?

You can help

Just as you already advise clients to keep careful records of their digital financial accounts, you can also educate them on the need to maintain records of their social accounts—and to document their wishes for these accounts after they die.

Your process should include:

  • Creating an inventory of personal digital accounts (social media, email, iTunes, frequent flier accounts, etc.), subscriptions, and memberships. This list should include a general description, instructions on how to find it (link, app, etc.), user IDs, passwords, account numbers, and any other necessary information.
  • Appointing a “digital executor.” A financial professional could serve in this role. It might also be a spouse, trusted friend, or a reliable family member. Whoever is chosen must be willing and able to carry out the responsibilities according to the client’s wishes. In some cases, it may be helpful to split the responsibilities among a few people.
  • Ensuring access. When the time comes, the executor must be able to access the inventory. Until then, it has to remain secure. As long as the executor can access the data, an encrypted password-protected computer file may be a good option.

Benefits of serving as a digital executor:

  • Give clients and heirs peace of mind.
  • Ease the transfer of digital assets after a client dies.
  • Build trust between you and the next generation of clients.
  • Reduce the potential for identity theft.
  • Set your business apart from your competitors.

Start the conversation soon

Most individuals, focused on real-world assets, aren’t necessarily aware of the need for digital media estate plans. But the need and the opportunity are urgent.


LI-Logo-21px-RFollow Principal Funds on LinkedIn

Principal Funds, Inc. is distributed by Principal Funds Distributor, Inc.