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The crucial importance of creating a Digital Estate Plan

In late 2004, a roadside bomb in Fallujah tragically took the life of twenty year old Marine Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth.

And it fell to his family to conduct the painful process of wrapping up his estate. But his father, a police sergeant named John, ran into an unfortunate problem…because Justin’s e-mail provider, Yahoo, wouldn’t give John access to his deceased son’s e-mail account.

“He was keeping a journal of sorts to put together for future history,” John Ellsworth told BBC News. “He wanted to make sure that his generation, as well as following generations, has actual words from somebody who was there.”

So you can see why his father was so eager to gain access to those e-mails.

Finally, after a protracted court battle, Yahoo relented and provided the grieving father with a printed transcript of Justin’s e-mails. But is there some way to prevent this problem in your own estate planning?

And, as our online lives continue to expand, this issue concerns far more than access to an e-mail address… Because your picture albums, social networking accounts, online brokerage, Paypal funds, twitter feeds, and even digital currencies like bitcoin all reside online.

So what happens if you pass away or suffer a major disability? You might want to make sure ahead of time that your loved ones can access those accounts. Whether you want those accounts closed, or if you simply want your loved ones to have access to them, you’ve got to prepare ahead of time.

Fortunately, you can make this entire process much easier with some simple preparation. Because you can make plans for your “digital assets” just like you can for your physical assets.

The thing is, different sites often have different terms and conditions for this type of situation. For instance, Google has a specific setting for a deceased or disabled user called “inactive status.” A user can apply this setting to allow for a successor user. It will even email the successor if the account is inactive for 6 months.

You’ll also want to make sure your will and power of attorney specifically address digital accounts and assets. After that, you ought to inventory what you own and use online…Everything from books, to digital currency, social media, shopping accounts, brokerage, bank accounts and email.

Third, keep a secure, encrypted user and password list for each computer, device or website. Roboform, 1Password, Last Pass and Keeper are all trusted software apps for discrete password management.

Lastly, make sure only a trustworthy person has access to this information. Someone such as your Executor or Attorney in Fact may be a good choice.

Right now, many states are working on a Uniform Digital Estate Law. Hopefully, these uniform laws will make the process clear and fair to all. But until that happens, you should start your planning now to assure you control your digital estate.

Ryan Fox is the Gettysburg Director for the Financial Consulate, Inc. located at 131 Carlisle Street in Gettysburg. He can be reached at 717-334-1861, at, or through The Consulate is a fee only, NAPFA member financial advisory firm with salaried employees who accept no commissions.

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