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The Facebook Tool for Your Digital Estate Plan

You may want to sign up for the social network's Legacy Contact feature

By Steve Cook

Recently, Facebook announced a new feature called Legacy Contact that lets users of the social network authorize another person to access or modify their accounts after they die.
A Facebook Legacy Contact can, among other things, write a post to display at the top of the deceased person’s Facebook timeline; update the person’s profile picture and cover photo and download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information the former Facebook user shared on the social network.
This new feature is certainly a step in the right direction while we wait for the estate laws in our country to catch up with advances in technology.

(MORE: 5 Steps to Create a Digital Estate Plan)
Just What Is A Digital Asset?
Many people don’t think of their social media accounts or email accounts as digital assets, but that’s what they are — or at least what they contain. These accounts often feature some of our most sentimental and important pictures, videos, letters, messages and blog posts. However, instead of being stored on our computers, they’re often kept on servers halfway across the country or the world.
Google has offered a limited digital estate planning tool called Inactive Account Manager for awhile. Inactive Account Manager monitors a person’s Google Account for activity and, after a set period of time, notifies a contact who the accountholder specified, giving that person access to Google services such as Gmail and YouTube.
But most other social media platforms — such as Twitter and LinkedIn — either deactivate or remove a deceased person’s profile once they’ve been notified of the death.

(MORE: What Heirs Want More Than Money)
Although Facebook’s Legacy Contact is a step in the right direction, the lack of federal and state laws working in conjunction with firms that have digital estate planning policies creates uncertainty about what’ll happen to your digital assets after you die.
The Problem with Digital Assets
One of the main objectives of estate planning is to let the representative you’ve chosen gather and distribute or manage your assets after you die as you instructed. That’s the problem with digital assets: proving to the custodians of digital assets that a particular person is authorized to access or take ownership of them.
Unfortunately, the laws in the United States don’t create a simple, uniform procedure to gather assets located throughout the country (as digital assets are); rather, representatives must generally be appointed by courts in each state where you owned assets. So each state court appoints such a representative (an “ancillary probate”), which often costs at least $3,000 per state.

(MORE: How to Give Away Your Digital Fortune)
What Can You Do?
As you can see, the law hasn’t caught up with our increasingly digital society. Therefore, we’re stuck with jerry-rigged solutions.
That’s why firms like EstateMap, PasswordBox, SecureSafe and others — have developed services to let you store information about your digital assets or accounts along with the credentials to access those assets upon your passing.
A word of caution, however. Although most of these services may be secure, if they’re the target of a successful hacking attempt, your usernames and passwords could be compromised and stolen.
So what should you do to protect your digital assets?
At the very least, it’s a good idea to list your digital asset service providers — such as Facebook and Twitter — and appoint someone to manage these accounts after you die, if the companies allow. Also, make a list of your usernames and passwords for the accounts and store them in a secure place; bear in mind that some providers may prohibit the transfer of, and access to, the accounts by anyone but you.
In light of the uncertainties associated with digital estate planning, you just might want to take matters into your own hands. Download and backup your most important digital assets (photos, videos, emails, etc.) and, along with your will or other estate-planning documents, leave instructions with someone you trust about how to access the assets.
If you’re not willing to do that much, at least designate a Facebook Legacy Contact. For instructions how to set it up, read this four-step Lifehacker guide.

Steve Cook is an estate planning attorney at Cook & Cook in Phoenix, Ariz., assisting clients with nearly all aspects of estate planning, from drafting and funding revocable living trusts to developing sophisticated estate-tax planning strategies, such as family limited partnerships. Read More
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