Residents of Colorado may have heard of pioneering legislation considered by the Pennsylvania legislature last year. House Bill 5580 would have allowed a person to access another person’s email or social media accounts with permission of the account holder. The bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee and no progress has been made on the bill since last summer.
The proposed legislation in Pennsylvania illustrates how the law and society in general have not kept pace with digital accounts as assets. Just as many people are reluctant to have a will drafted, they are also unwilling to make decisions about what to do about what will happen to their Facebook page or email account after they pass away. Meanwhile, vendors of digital services have set their own rules and policies for the survivors of deceased account holders accessing those accounts.
A Facebook page or an email account may or may not have monetary value, depending on how the account holder uses the account. Other online accounts have a clear monetary value, such as frequent flier miles. Domain names can be worth money in and of themselves, especially if they are easy to remember. Websites and blogs that are used as advertising platforms can also be valuable. If the owner of these assets does not have a succession plan in place, a probate court may have difficulty determining how such assets should be distributed. Since digital assets are a relatively recent phenomenon, little precedent exists in probate law.
An attorney familiar with estate planning and wills can guide clients through the difficult process of planning for the distribution of physical and digital assets. Those who have such assets could consult with a qualified attorney for the benefit of their heirs.
Source: Post-gazette, previously posted online article: “Digital assets’: the new frontier for estate planning“, Tim Grant, May 13, 2013