The digital age is here, and for many of us, online and digital technologies touch our daily lives in a wide variety of ways. Whether it’s emails, e-commerce, banking, social media or otherwise, these technologies can offer a range of benefits, convenience and a means to stay connected. At the same time, from an estate perspective, as more of us increasingly “go digital” with our lives and information, this also marks an important turning point where we need to take a step back and consider the scope of our digital footprint, as well as why and how our digital assets need to be part of our estate plans.
The digital world through an estate lens
As online technologies and capabilities have evolved over the years, the general tendency among many Canadians has been to both do more and store more digitally. And with new innovations continually pushing the bar for digital offerings, options, services and flexibility, the gravitation towards the digital realm shows no signs of slowing.
“Canada is one connected country, and for many reasons, that’s a great thing,” comments Sharon Hartung, founder and principal, Your Digital Undertaker, and Society for Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) TEP member. “But there are implications to our use of technology in the planning of our estates most people don’t realize. The home office, in large part, isn’t paper anymore, and a great deal of our pertinent information, files, accounts and lives now exist online or in some other digital format. This shift could pose real challenges for estate planning and estate administration, but the good news is that with an awareness, you can proactively plan for your estate, including the digital assets and associated elements.”
What is a digital asset?
When it comes to the term “digital asset,” there’s no universal definition that applies across the board (some resources define it broadly as an electronic record). The STEP recognizes digital assets as those that have financial and/or sentimental value, in much the same way as other physical assets or possessions.4
To gain a better understanding of your digital assets, Hartung suggests it may be helpful to look at the full scope of what you do, access and store digitally and then separate out the financial and sentimental aspects.
“Technology has become so pervasive and so second-nature for some people, and I think that contributes to overlooking much of our digital footprint and what would be included as part of an estate,” shares Hartung. “To reframe it, I like to ask: Do you use email? Do you have loyalty points? Are you engaged in a social media community or have a blog? Do you use online banking or pay bills online? Do you have digital photos or a digital music collection? If so, this means you have digital assets, each with its own type and level of value that’s unique to you and your family.”
In conceptualizing digital assets, it’s also important to distinguish them from digital accounts—the assets are items such as your emails, documents, images, audio or video files that are stored on digital devices, whereas the accounts are where you gain access to the assets (e.g. email account, file sharing account or social media account).
Understanding and defining your estate
As Hartung discusses in her book, Your Digital Undertaker: Exploring death in the digital age in Canada, to better understand your digital life and what that means from an estate standpoint, it’s important to first understand what an estate is and what happens to your physical assets and then use that awareness in organizing your digital affairs.
In general, an estate can be defined as the property you own or that you have legal interest in. An estate includes your real estate, personal property, securities and other assets and liabilities. In administering an estate after someone passes away, a Will is the guiding legal document that outlines how property and possessions are to be distributed, according to that person’s wishes.
While many make the assumption that their estate would pass to their spouse if they were to pass away without a Will, in reality what happens is that they’d be deemed to have died “intestate.” Dying intestate generally means your estate will be administered in accordance with provincial or territorial legislation based on where you resided at death—in other words, you lose the element of choice with your wishes and intentions.
Poll data currently indicates that among Canadians, only about one-third have an up-to-date Will.5 Given this low percentage, and because digital assets are a relatively newer territory in estate planning, it’s rare that digital assets are properly accounted for.
As Hartung reinforces, “A current Will is fundamental to dealing with one’s assets, including digital assets. Today that means your Will has a clause or additional words that specifically address your digital assets and give your executor the directions and powers to deal with them—that’s a new framework of thinking for most people. Without a Will or without pre-planning and including your wishes around your digital assets in your estate plan, even our precious memories, such as our digital photos, can now be lost.”
Legacy contacts for online accounts
While there aren’t many current platforms that offer pre-planning features, there are a few that allow users to select someone who will have access to the account after the user passes away. Where these features do exist, there’s still a lack of awareness about them, so it’s worthwhile to look into the settings and use the pre-planning functions where possible.
Estate impacts in the digital age
In much the same way as with other types of property that form your estate, including your digital property in your Will and estate plans is the best way to ensure the financial and sentimental value of those assets doesn’t get lost.
“The good news is that all the estate planning basics still apply, such as creating an inventory of your assets and property, thinking about what you want done with your estate—including your digital estate now—including them in a Will and leaving instructions for the executor,” Hartung explains. “But because of the virtual nature of a digital asset, an executor isn’t just going to stumble upon it in your home office as they perhaps would’ve in the past with a printed bank statement amongst your papers and hardcopy files. The pre-planning becomes key because the executor needs to know you have the digital assets in order to find them and deal with them.”
Another key aspect to think about is digital assets that can live on, such as social media. Here, it becomes important to give thought to whether you want those accounts to have an afterlife online or whether you’d prefer to have them shut down.
“When it comes to the approach in planning for our digital lives and assets, I think two key questions to ask are: How is the executor supposed to know what you have? And, where is the executor supposed to find the information?” notes Hartung.
Reframing the executor role
In creating a Will and as part of estate planning, a central consideration is who you want to choose and appoint as the executor (called an “estate trustee” in Ontario and a “liquidator” in Quebec). This is an integral role in the administration of an estate, as the executor is responsible for managing and distributing the estate according to the wishes outlined in the Will.
“With the digital age, the executor job has changed—I think it’s already the least understood of all jobs you could be asked to do by your family, but in the past, when the executor had a paper trail, they had a fighting chance to figure out what an estate consisted of,” explains Hartung. “Today, they’re likely faced with a laptop or a tablet, which is likely locked. Secondly, we now own assets that are virtual, such as our loyalty points or digital photos. These may have significant value, but they might not be known or obvious to the executor.”
The importance of planning ahead
Given the very nature of digital assets and their associated implications for an estate, this brings to light the importance and necessity of taking stock of your digital assets, documenting what they are, where they are and how you’d like them to be handled.
As Hartung explains, “We need to consider digital assets as a new class of assets. In general, they require pre-planning in order for the beneficiaries to benefit from the intentions of the person who’s passing them down.”
For digital assets that have financial value, you have to plan ahead for them so they can be found, secured and transferred to the right beneficiary. The same thinking holds true for digital items that have sentimental value, as things like photos, videos, blogs or family history may be central to leaving memories and passing along a legacy.
“This is the first generation where we’re going to be passing digital assets, which is very significant,” emphasizes Hartung. “In this entirely new wave of estate planning, building increased awareness is a great first step in helping families prepare and can be a good catalyst for taking action.”
Tips to consider in pre-planning for your digital assets
Create an estate inventory that includes your digital assets. While it may seem like a time-consuming task, building an inventory and logging the details is an important part of the Will and estate planning process, and is a necessity in the digital age. If you bank and pay your bills online, for example, and receive e-statements (which are locked within a device), unless it’s documented somewhere or you’ve otherwise made your executor or family members aware, no one but you may know it exists.
Note: To help you in gathering a comprehensive list of family assets and key information, both physical and digital, RBC Wealth Management offers The Family Inventory, a useful guidebook for both logging and updating your pertinent details.
- Keep in mind that regardless of your age or stage of life, if you have physical or digital assets, you have an estate. Estate planning is for all ages and regardless of the size of one’s estate, everyone has wishes for what they own. Your digital life may form a significant part of your estate, depending on your circumstances and how you use digital technologies. For younger generations, it’s just as important to create a Will and document your wishes.
- Think about your wishes and preferences for loved ones and how you want the full scope of your assets to be distributed and dealt with.
- Be proactive in staying up to date with technology. Over time, new options and/or provider terms of service may become available for planning for specific kinds of digital assets.
- Consult with qualified estate, tax and legal advisors to make sure your circumstances are appropriately accounted for and to properly document your wishes in a Will and estate plan.
Find out more about other potential aspects to consider, and how digitalization may impact Will planning, in the RBC Wealth Management article, “Have you planned your digital legacy?”.
- National Cyber Security Strategy. “Canada’s vision for security and prosperity in the digital age.” Public Safety Canada. 2018. https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/ntnl-cbr-scrt-strtg/ntnl-cbr-scrt-strtg-en.pdf.
- The internet and digital technology. Infographic. Statistics Canada. Release date: November 14, 2017. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2017032-eng.htm.
- Seniors online. Infographic. Statistics Canada. Release date: April 15, 2019. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2019024-eng.htm.
- Digital assets – Public resources. STEP. 2012 to 2017. https://www.step.org/digital-assets-public. STEP Digital Assets (Public Reference): STEP Digital Assets Special Interest Group. What Are My Digital Assets? Accessed October 02, 2018. https://www.step.org/sites/default/files/Digital_Assets/Digital_Assets_PUBLIC_GUIDE.pdf.
- “What ‘will’ happen with your assets?” Angus Reid Institute poll results. January 2018. http://angusreid.org/will-and-testament/.