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Without estate plans, beneficiaries may be denied digital assets

Advancing technology has changed many aspects of daily life. The way people in Texas work, learn, shop and entertain themselves have all been altered by the internet. Because use of the internet may place a person's privacy and safety at risk, laws were made to protect people's online accounts from intruders. Unfortunately, those same laws may cause frustration for fiduciaries and beneficiaries if access to them is not granted before a person dies.

The urgency to protect sensitive electronic information means that new laws are not likely to offer too much access to personal digital accounts. Estate planning advisors recommend that people take proactive steps to avoid having their electronic assets lost forever after their deaths. New laws being passed across the country are allowing limited pieces of information to be retrieved by a person's loved ones. However, that information may be restricted to contact lists and not personal data such as pictures or emails.

At least 10 states have signed or are expected to sign bills into law to allow survivors to access limited data. In Texas, however, the bill failed, leaving beneficiaries few choices. One option is to let the accounts go, perhaps losing a significant portion of the estate and possibly irreplaceable pictures and precious memories. The other option is to contact an attorney for help in winning access to the private accounts through the courts.

Some websites, such as Facebook, allow users to designate someone to access accounts when the subscriber dies or becomes incapacitated. In most cases, the courts accept these agreements. The best option for people who have electronic data that has value – even sentimental value – is to make provisions for those accounts in their estate plans. By discussing one's digital assets with an attorney, a person will learn the best way to provide his or her beneficiaries with access to those personal assets.

Source: centredaily.com, "Who inherits a selfie? States seek to fill privacy law gaps", Ivan Moreno, Oct. 2, 2016

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