Preparing for the e-Afterlife – Estate Planning Tips for Digital Assets

Preparing for the e-Afterlife – Estate Planning Tips for Digital Assets

How would you like to awake one day, and find out that you’re a meme?

You might need to look up that term, still something of a neologism. ‘Meme’ (noun); an image, often humorous or scurrilous, that is rabidly whipped ‘round the web by jubilant strangers who wish only to preserve your humiliation for eternity. Something like that – what, now I’m a dictionary?

For some victims, it might only be gently embarrassing. Let’s say someone grabs a phone-snap of me eating a half-smoke layered in grilled onions – it’s something I do. Rest assured there’s a second dog awaiting some jaw action, plus a frothy root beer within reach. You wouldn’t need Cartier-Bresson’s lightning reflexes to capture this ‘decisive moment’, trust me. Hang around me at lunchtime, anytime, and you’ll snap it.

So they post it all over social media, with a caption: “Is this a man enjoying his food, or food enjoying a man?” I wouldn’t mind; I’ve wondered that myself. Yet it could get tedious, all the pointing and laughing. And what would my loved ones think if this image survived me, becoming a permanent part of our culture of cruelty? They’d get perilous sick of it.

My spirit would be a good sport, but not everyone I polled would be so magnanimous. Judging from my informal survey, anyone abusing personal images post mortem can expect a chill haunting from the miffed ghosts of strangers.

This is no trivial issue. The word’s going around that James Dean, who’s been lacking bodily form since 1955, is to star in a new movie. I’ll spare you the digital trickery allowing this afterlively Oscar gambit; let’s only say there’s enough film footage and still shots to nourish a CGI portrayal of long-gone Jim. What method will inform his acting is beyond me.

What if Jimmy D doesn’t want to be cloned into a cartoon? Or, more rightly, his family and heirs, who seem not to control his digital rights? You could hardly anticipate such a problem in the fifties, but today the issue is understood by the vulnerable elite. The late Robin Williams, as an example, with an aim to protect family privacy and feelings, got himself ready just in time.

Here’s what he did: first up, he bought property in a state that has laws to protect publicity rights after death. Next, he established a corporation to which he assigned the digital property he aimed to protect. Finally, his will granted that company post-mortem rights to control publicity and usage, and guidelines on how to proceed.

So far, we’ve been talking about bankable stars. What about us simple folk? Being forced to star in a garbage film, one that stains our artistic legacy, is not a concern. Yet everyone has digital assets that need protecting, lest they be abused, heaping dull trouble on our loved ones and heirs.

Let’s start by examining a matter seemingly trivial at first: a gaming account. I’ve been playing a zombie apocalypse game for four years. I’ve mentioned that my nephew wants the password, so he can keep mowing down zeds after I’m dead, for my virtual gunship is mighty. Silly, yes?

Nope: that account is linked to Apple Pay, the easier to buy e-weapons and resources. Suppose a nefarious party hacked a forgotten gaming account, overlooked because someone neglected to add it to their inventory of e-assets, which we should all give to our estate planning team and trustworthy family and friends.

So if someone busts into my gaming account, they would gain access to that Apple Pay account, simple enough to abuse in ways beyond gaming. Even if they simply charged up a pallet of virtual napalm and rockets, it’s paid for with real money from my estate. I’d have created a post-obituary headache for my fiduciary and loved ones – a mess that would need real-life mopping up.

A few terms, as a first step. I just mentioned a ‘fiduciary’. You’ll need one: that’s someone with power of attorney to manage your affairs after you pass on. Get acquainted with ‘users’: that’s you and me, and anyone we designate to have access to our e-assets. My brother and sister, two trusted friends in New Zealand, dependable, resourceful souls, all, are my co-users. I update them every January with my e-data. Set a date like that; keep things organized.

‘Custodians’ may not be so trustworthy; they include Facebook and Google: all the service providers who store our digital valuables, and mine them for heaven knows what uses, which change all the time. They do this through the ‘TOS’ – terms of service agreement – those endless pages that pop up at each update, and we users habitually ignore. This is why we need a trusted fiduciary or two to take care of business when we no longer can.

So, the first step: make a comprehensive inventory of your digital assets. I’ll tell you from experience, the task starts out as tedium, but becomes arresting when you discover just how much e-stuff you’ve acquired. Usernames and passwords for email accounts, bank accounts, investments off-shore and on, digital brokers and robo-advisors. Amazon – holy cow! – the havoc the ill-willed could cause if they gained access to that…

I have myriad ways of preserving my thousands of photos – I’m a photo enthusiast; it runs in our family, raised on dad’s slideshows. My brother and sister share account access to them all. I use a cloud service, too, and key documents and pics are stored in a shared folder, accessible to my fiduciary and family. Anyone can set up such basics, and should get on it, quick.

This prompts asking, what else? Many people own domain names, webpages for blogs and commerce, and those potentially valuable – and vulnerable – gaming assets, as noted. Recall just how many websites hold your credit card info. A grand ‘wipe’ of these accounts should be part of your will.

Backing up this asset list is the next chore. I keep my inventory on my desktop, in the cloud, on an external SSD drive, and I’m pricing one of those dongle units that are so heavily encrypted even their maker can’t hack them. I write things down in ink, too. Have you read the tales about early Bitcoin investors who hid account info on these dongle gizmos, then forgot the password? Locked out of millions by not writing things down! Oi, as they say.

So back up your backups; engrave them in stone, if you must, and leave copies with trusted family and fiduciaries. I’ll wager the people you empower will do the right thing with your legacy, just so long as they can find where you left it.

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