Finding Digital Assets When the Will Is Silent As to their Existence

This is the second part of a series on the estate administration process and tasks an executor must perform in order to carry out the wishes of the deceased person’s will. The first step is obtaining a declaration that the will is valid. The second step is having the Surrogate’s Court appoint the executor, as designated in the will, as the legal administrator of the estate. 

For decades now, we have been told that we are living in the digital age. Some early adopters gadgeted up and have a digital life rich with videos, texts, photos, online accounts, and even friends that exist in digital spaces. Many wills are absolutely silent as to the existence of digital assets. Nonetheless, in administering an estate, the executor will be tasked with investigating whether the deceased person maintained any digital assets and then disposing of those digital assets. This post will discuss the special problem of digital assets when the will is silent as to their existence.  

The mailbox chronicles

Traditionally the mailbox, the one the postman or postwoman deliver mail to every day but Sunday, was an executor’s good friend during the estate administration process. By monitoring the mail that entered the deceased person’s physical mailbox an executor could see and investigate what accounts and property interests the deceased person had and verify that they were in the will, what the balance is, and dispose of them as the will indicates.

Hardly a day goes by where you don’t get asked if you would like to receive a statement or receipt electronically, in lieu of paper. Electronic mail or email gets delivered to an email address that only his or her owner knows how to access. If the will does not identify an email account, but the deceased person has one, how are you able, as the executor, to investigate if there are any online accounts?

The problem is twofold. During the course of the estate planning process, when the deceased person is preparing their will and planning for the distribution of their estate, deceased people do not intuitively realize that they have no planning in place for any of their digital assets. Oftentimes, people planning their estate, don’t even know what digital assets are and if they do, assume that because they didn’t own bitcoin, for example, that they did not have any digital assets to dispose of.

In administering estates, executors generally have no idea how to locate digital assets, how to value digital assets, and then how to transfer digital assets. They may not even know how to access a digital asset. Digital asset planning is crucial to wills in the digital age. A do-it-yourself will cannot properly assist a person with identifying and distributing their digital assets. Without instruction or access, the executor’s hands will be tied in carrying out your wishes.

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