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Modern estate planning: how to address online content?

Many Michigan residents may already have an estate plan which they believe is sufficient to their end-of-life wishes. But sometimes estate plans that seem water-tight are filled with tiny holes that can develop into larger ones. To take this holey metaphor further, the puncturing object in some estate plans may be technology itself.

Specifically, people in Oakland County may do well to consider just how their use of the Internet may create its own sort of legacy. Email, blogs, Facebook and other internet accounts are likely points of interest for anyone who wishes to keep information in those accounts private after his or her death. One has to ask whether family members should be allowed to access certain online content, and whether certain language may be necessary in a will to ensure that online content remains available only during one's own lifetime.

Planning ahead with regard to one's virtual life, along with one's actual life, may also be key to preventing added stress and grief for family members. With that in mind, readers might consider including specific language in their end-of-life documents to address what to do with online accounts. Should family members have access to them? Should family members be given the passwords to those accounts in order to change, cancel, or save them? Or should someone outside the family be given that access? If a will does not include such language, people may run the risk of sensitive or unwanted information remaining publicly available for years to come. Consider this, for example: Facebook will not legally acknowledge a personal representative or trustee as having rights to an individual's account; that is, unless an estate plan includes language to indicate as much.

In short, if a Michigan resident uses the Internet (as you obviously do), then he or she would be wise to make sure that the language of a will or other estate-planning document includes instructions regarding online passwords and content. And while technology rolls into the future, so does a good estate plan.

Source:, "E-mails and Embryos: 21st Century Estate Planning," Christine Caswell, Jan. 3, 2012

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