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In estate planning, Internet assets might need to be considered

Evolving technology is materially affecting people's lives in virtually every conceivable manner as far as legal rights and duties are concerned.

In the realm of family law, for example, what a person uploads about his or her personal life on an Internet social networking site-- think Facebook, Twitter or some other online vehicle -- is now routinely being used as evidence in child custody and other disputes. In the area of criminal law, new eavesdropping technologies and tracking systems are raising new privacy and search/seizure issues.

Estate planning, too, has been impacted by technological change. It is in fact an area where an explosion of technology has firm implications in many instances for how a person's assets are identified, accessed and disposed of.

Consider wills, for example, and the question of whether a will is truly a complete and comprehensive document without all consideration of what these days are commonly termed "digital assets."

Such assets -- pegged by participants in a recent study at about $55,000 in an average case -- comprise personal property that is stored online and most often accessed by a username and password. It can include intellectual property and creations, ideas, financial programs, photographs, savings account information and myriad other things.

The central inquiry relating to it: Is it properly identified and accessible to loved ones and heirs in a person's last will and testament? Has it been duly inventoried and accounted for?

Consider this, an example provided in a recent media article. A business traveler might have amassed a million or more frequent-flyer miles that are noted in an online account. In a case where they are transferable, they might simply lapse instead if the owner has not identified them and taken steps to ensure that they are noted and disposed of in accordance with his or her wishes.

Other examples abound, which has led many estate planners to recommend that their clients do a comprehensive inventory of all digital assets and account for them in their will and other planning documents.

Otherwise a number of valuable assets might never be identified, accessible to heirs and duly passed along as intended.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "'Digital assets:' the new frontier for estate planning," Tim Grant, May 13, 2013


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