Thursday, March 28, 2013

How to Pass on Your Digital Assets When You Die

An e-book is one example of a digital asset.
For those Baby Boomers who are writing e-books, own personal domain names, store their photos on sites like Flickr, or earn an income by producing content for sites like InfoBarrel, Hubpages or Squidoo, what happens to those digital assets when you die?  In addition, do you know if you can pass on your expensive ITune collection, gaming avatars, or your email and Facebook accounts?

The law is still murky regarding many of these issues.  As a result, it is important that people understand the current rules regarding these digital assets, and take steps to protect these assets if they are important to you.  This article will certainly need to be updated from time to time, as laws change.

How to Pass on E-books You Own or Have Written

According to a Time Magazine article in the February 11, 2013 issue, Kindle books can be willed to your heirs.  This is true whether you have purchased them and downloaded them to your Kindle device or whether you have written them and you are receiving royalties.

However, the issue is vague with regards to other types of ebooks.  This will become a serious problem in the future since, at this time, approximately one out of every four books that are sold in the United States are e-books.  Some people have already accumulated hundreds of books on their devices and they want to pass their "library" to their heirs, just as people in the past were able to leave their library of books to their heirs.  In addition, there are a number of authors who have gotten their start by writing e-books, and some of these books produce a substantial income for the family.  They will also want their heirs to benefit from the royalties on these books. Watch for laws to be written in the coming years to clarify this matter so that these downloaded e-books can be willed and/or book royalties can continue to support families after the original author is deceased.

How to Transfer Domain Names

Some domain names are worth millions of dollars.  Even those that are less valuable can be important to the small family business or individual who owns the domain name.  If the domain name is registered with Go Daddy, it can be transferred to your heirs within 24 hours, but only if the paperwork is in order.  Anyone who owns a domain name should check with the registrar of that domain to make sure that both they and their heirs know how to transfer the name upon your death.  All of the big registrars have already had to deal with this issue, and they have well established rules for handling it.

Vague Laws Regarding On-line Writing Sites

A few months ago I saw a tragic letter in the forum of a writing site.  A woman said that she was dying of cancer and she wanted all of her articles removed from the site.  Another writer on the site suggested that the company simply transfer the articles that she had written to the social security number of a family member.  This particular woman declined the suggestion, stating that none of her heirs were interested in learning how to use the site.  However, this forum exchange did make me realize that we all need to make sure that our heirs know how to gain access to our online libraries, and be able to contact the site administrators to send them copies of our wills and death certificates, should our untimely death occur.  The income from these assets could provide an additional income to our family members for years after our death.  However, it remains vague whether the sites will allow the royalties from these assets to be transferred to heirs, even if it is what you wish.  Again, watch for laws in coming years which will either allow these assets to be passed on or require them to remain as the property of the writing sites.  The legal system will undoubtedly have to clarify whether these assets are the property of the author or the site where they are published.

One of the writers at InfoBarrel recently asked the owners of that site what she had to do to pass her articles to someone else.  They answered that they did not have "anything in place for that yet."  They went on to say "it would probably be up to the user's estate to let us know what to do with the account" and they suggested that "they put any transfer instructions in their will."  From this it appears that InfoBarrel, at least, will allow you to transfer the library of articles you have written to a relative, as long as you make your wishes clear in your will and your estate submits your instructions to the site owners.  (See the next section about using a Revocable Trust for this purpose.)


2013 Update:  Google has launched a new feature that will let you assign your Google accounts, such as Google Adsense, G-mail, and your other digital assets, upon your death.  You can choose to either have them inactivated or assign them to another person.  It is called "Inactive Account Manager."  Look for it on your Google Account settings page.  This is a huge step in the right direction!  I have had articles that still earn me Google Adsense income years after I wrote them.  I would love to be able to pass this income to my husband or daughters after I die.  Hopefully, other online sites will follow Google's lead.

Using a Revocable Trust to Pass On Your Online Business

Whether you realize it or not, your e-books, domain names, blogs and online articles for writing sites constitute a business.  Therefore, you may want to ask your attorney to include a page in your trust entitled "Assignment of Business Interest."  In this document, you want a statement to the effect that you are transferring "all rights, title and interest in the business entity known as (your pen name) including the goodwill, accounts receivable, equipment .... and all other assets of the business."  The purpose of this document is to notify the trustee that you have potential income from your online business that will need to be collected and dispersed per the terms of your trust.  You should list all of your business ID's on this document so the trustee knows the names of the businesses that send you earnings.  Make sure the trustee also has a list of companies where he or she will need to send your death certificate and other documentation so the trust can continue to accept and disperse the income from your online business.  This is the simplest way to handle your online digital assets.

Giving Your Heirs Your iTunes Collection

If you have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on your iTunes collection, someday your heirs might want to enjoy your music selections, as well.  In the past, family members often loved to inherit their relative's album collection.  Today, however, passing on digital music collections is more complicated.  According to the Time Magazine article, Apple's current stance is that "we do not have a policy to will or inherit an iTunes collection."  Your best bet is to will your iPod to your favorite family member.  However, your heirs will probably not be able to transfer your music to their own devices at this time.  Once your iPod or MP3 player ceases to work, your collection of music will be lost.

Sharing Photos with Your Heirs

Many people are now storing their photographs on sites like Flickr, SmugMug and Instagram.  Flickr is owned by Yahoo which states that the photo file accounts can be transferred to someone else, as long as that person has written consent and the password.  Without those, survivors can only ask that the contents of the account be deleted.  If you want to make sure that your photos outlive you, your best advice is to order prints of your favorite photos and use them to put together photo albums that you give your family members.  You may also want to store your photos on your home computer.   If you do use sites like Flickr, make sure that someone else has your password and knows how to access the photos.  Personally, I am a firm believer in sharing my photos with family members as often as possible, either through Facebook or by giving them gifts of photo albums and framed photos.

Transferring Other Digital Assets

If you have Facebook, Twitter, email and other social media or digital asset accounts, and you want your family members to have continued access to these sites after your death, you need to put that information in writing and give your heirs your passwords, public IDs, and any other information you have that would make access easier. You should also give them your written consent to have access to your account.  Even these actions will not guarantee them access on all sites, but it will make it easier to pass on these assets on the sites that allow it.

Meanwhile, watch for some upcoming court cases and changes in the laws.  As more and more of us age while owning valuable digital assets, new laws are likely to be written to clarify some of the murky rules regarding their transfer.


If you are interested in reading more about issues you need to consider as you reach retirement age, you may want to check out the topics below.  Each of these links will connect you to a number of articles of these topics.  You may be especially interested in the articles under "Money and Financial Planning for Retirement."

Gifts, Travel and Family Relationships

Great Places for Boomers to Retire Overseas

Great Places to Retire in the United States

Health and Medical Topics for Baby Boomers

Money and Financial Planning for Retirement


Information about the laws regarding the transferability of digital assets was from the Tech column in Time Magazine, February 11, 2013, pgs. 54-55.

Information regarding Infobarrel was from their forum: http://www.infobarrel.com/forum-topic.php?id=9993&page=2 

Information regarding the use of a revocable trust to pass on the income from your online assets was provided by a California attorney.  Your state laws may differ, so it is highly recommended that you seek out legal advice in your home state.  

This article is not intended to replace the legal advice of your attorney.  In addition, new laws regarding the transfer of digital assets are currently being debated in state legislatures across the nation, and some of the issues mentioned here may be expected to change during the coming years.



You are reading from the blog:  http://Baby-Boomer-Retirement.blogspot.com

Photo of the book cover for author's e-book, "Your Guide to a Fabulous Las Vegas Wedding," courtesy of Amazon.com

4 comments:

  1. Very interesting article that for sure. This is what has been worrying me for some time. No I am not earning a fortune thats for sure.
    I wrote a heap of articles on Helium. And I went through about 30 of them donating them to charity. The trouble that is not much out of about 250 articles and it all has to be done 1 article at the time.

    When you die the banks close your accounts so they are not going to pay into that account for someone else so this has to be taken into consideration too. I am not sure if giving written consent would allow a relative to transfer the money into another persons bank account. Plus I do not want to have to keep notifying centrelink about the few dollars earned each month when traveling. So far it has not affected my pension (that shows not earning a lot) I just write for the fun of it and a bit of pocket money. Thanks Deborah it is a big problem facing a lot of the baby boomers.

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    1. Thanks, Eileen. You make a great point about the banks closing your accounts, which means that the money that is owed to us will probably just be kept by the majority of the sites.

      This is not a problem for those writers who earn only a few hundred dollars a year. However, some writers are earning thousands of dollars a year that they would like to pass on to their spouse or children.

      You are right that this is something that we are all going to have to take into consideration as part of our estate planning. I appreciate you taking the time to read this and add your input.

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  2. Wow! I hadn't even given any of this consideration. With a website and articles online, I really need to. Other points to include in this discussion would be earned income from online articles that are deposited to Paypal rather than a bank account. I have a meeting soon about finalizing a trust, I'll ask digital assets are overed and let you know what I learn. Thanks for bringing us this very important topic.

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  3. This article has certainly been a work in progress and, just today, I added the information about including digital assets in a revocable trust by using a document called "Assignment of Business Interest." There are tens of thousands of people who are earning extra money from online sources and it will be helpful for them to know how to pass on this income when they die. Thanks to everyone for the feedback that I have gotten on this article.

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