If you are the administrator of someone's estate, nowadays you will probably have to deal with the person's online and personal computing legacy along with other duties. Also, as you go through their technical devices, you may find information to help you to locate some tangible assets.
Checking the Devices
You should gather all the deceased person's technical devices such as computers, tablets, smartphones, external hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and thumb-drives so that you can go through them to find information about the estate and also catalog any digital assets, which will be explained in the next section. An organized decedent may have left you a list of what is on the computer and online along with passwords, but someone who hasn't updated their will and documents for a long time may cause you some extra sleuthing work.
Helpful documents you might discover on the computer(s)
- tax returns
- bookkeeping records and spreadsheets for personal or business use
- lists of assets and debts owed
- bank and brokerage account information,
- and more.
Social media and email and other online accounts may also give you some valuable information, but be careful! They may have restrictions about access in their terms of service (TOS) and you could be violating state or federal laws by going into the accounts. You should contact an online entity first and give them a copy of the death certificate plus a proof of your role as executor of the estate, and ask for permission to access an account.
Discovering Digital Assets
Digital assets are image, multimedia, or textual content files that exist in a binary format and a person possesses a right to use them. They can be on a computer, be an online account, or be stored on the cloud. They can have merely sentimental value or they may have monetary value-- or they can have both. Along with the documents listed in the first section, digital assets can also include
- illustrations, logos, and animations,
- documents that contain novels, short stories, poems,
- an online presence that produces income such as blogs or websites,
- metadata (data that provides information about these files),
- medical information,
- educational information,
- friendships, conversations between users, online reputation, and
- digital currency.
Some might consider digital libraries of books, music, and films as assets, but since a customer only purchases a license to use them, they may not be transferable or hold any worth for heirs. However, this is an area that is still being debated, so you will need ask an attorney or research the laws in your state to make sure.
If the person died with an active account on a website where they bought and sold items, the user name and the reputation of the name-holder on the account could be valuable, so you may want to try to retain some control over it or arrange a legal transfer instead of simply closing the account if there is a provision for this.
If the person died without making a will, you should consult an estate attorney like one from Cadwallader Law Offices to discuss the disposition of these assets, especially if they prove to be valuable. For your own estate planning, it would be wise to catalog your digital assets with passwords and account information (including answers to secret questions) in a single place on a flash drive or on the cloud and update them frequently. To prevent fraud and identity theft, this should be kept in a secure place.