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Desirable Declarations of Digital Decedents

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An old aphorism about inexperience is often expressed this way: “We’re laying down the track while running the train over it.” That’s the dilemma we face in this technological age. So much of our lives are wrapped up in our computers, smart phones, and Internet interfaces. What will happen when all our bits are turned off?

The Perspective Is New, If Not Unique.

The state of our estates is headed for befuddlement. You may have hundreds of dollars in digital assets. Who owns them when you’ve expired? If your heir has your e-reader, he or she has de facto access because of physical possession. But could they be sold? The courts will determine that unless a uniform law is established.

Who Has What Rights?

Who owns our accounts? The easy answer is: “Whoever has the passwords.” But how are passwords safeguarded for the estate? And what if the holder has a terms-of-service agreement that limits inheritance? Is all your data in social media yours or is it merely licensed for use? What about pictures, special documents, purchased music, games, and movies? Who owns the money you have in a PayPal or a password-protected bank account? How will any of these digital assets become a part of a decedent’s estate?

What Is The Value?

According to Time Magazine, $7.5 billion was spent for iTunes music in 2012. That resides in iPods, tablets, and a hundred other devices. Is that merely under license or is it an asset of the buyer, and, by definition, his heirs?

Who Owns Your Pictures?

You have photos on your computer, but what about those stored on Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram? We’re just beginning to explore the legalities of ownership. At the moment, social networking sites are shutting down accounts. Under court orders, some heirs have been successful to pry documents loose, but there is no general policy or regulation that permits that. There remains a parallel question here. The movies and games you have downloaded may have ownership issues, as well.

Is Your E-Mail A Transcript Of Your Life?

If so, is it owned by the service that moved it or by the originator or receiver? We know that these have been used as evidence in criminal proceedings, but what if your close relative wants to compile a biography?

What About Business Assets?

If your estate disposes of business assets, and your business has been Internet-centric, who owns the domains that have been registered in the name of the decedent? Who owns the accounts whereby money is transferred and orders are fulfilled?

We’re Still Struggling To Find The Answers.

The best and most operative advice that can be given now is to ensure that your desires are clearly known and all current transaction information is secured, including relevant passwords.

The New Jersey Savings Bank encourages you to contact a New Jersey estate planning attorney for current estate law. This body of law is certain to evolve as court cases press for clarity in the issue.

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