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How to leave a digital legacy for your heirs


The following ran in the Feb. 3, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News. Law Professor Peter Vogel provided expertise for this story.

February 8, 2012

By Pamela Yip

The digital evolution now has reached estate and financial planning. One of the most important aspects of estate planning has long been to tell your loved ones where to find copies of your will, power of attorney and financial contacts.

That’s still true. What’s changed is where people store their important information and documents, and that’s increasingly online.

Unfortunately, most people don’t consider what would happen if they died and no one knew how to access the information.

“We often plan for physical assets, but many do not have a plan in place for digital assets,” said Rick Salmeron, certified financial planner at the Salmeron Financial Network in Dallas.

“Digitalization has changed the way we run our lives,” he said. “As a result, it has changed the face of estate planning. Death in the digital world has made dying a lot more complicated.”

If people die without leaving directions on how to access their online life, “that life may become inaccessible,” Salmeron said.

“Heirs simply may not know of the existence of each and every online bank and investment account,” he said.

Allen residents Blaine and Shelia Thomas have embraced “digital estate planning,” and share one master password that gives them access to their bank and credit card accounts and important documents.

“One of the biggest troubles my wife and I had was we manage joint accounts, and frequently passing user names and passwords in email and storing the stuff in a spreadsheet is a risk,” Thomas said.

He said his method gives him peace of mind.

“In the past, a lot of people had a very small fireproof safe that they put in their closet, and wills and passports and whatever would go in there,” he said. “But documents can be stolen. I feel they’re important enough that having a record of them in a digital format and having them in this location provides me this ease of mind.”

Now Thomas wants to go a step further.

“I want to take this content and write up a simple procedure, put that procedure on a USB stick, password-protect it and give it to a family member,” he said. “And if anything bad were to happen, when you open that thumb drive, there are some files on there and it will be organized. File No. 1 says, ‘Go do this’ and when you’re done with that, File No. 2, says, ‘Go do this.’”

If you’re like the Thomases and have stored much of your personal information and documents online, make things easy for your loved ones. Here’s how to start:

List your cyber assets

 “Most individuals do not have a central repository of passwords and log-in information for the various and sundry sites they use and where they keep assets on the Internet,” said attorney Peter Vogel, who teaches a course on electronic commerce law at the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University....