Digital Estate Planning

In death you can only leave so much of what you owned during life.  Basically, if you don’t own it at death then you can’t pass it along to your grateful heirs.  I didn’t really think much about it until today when the lovely Lynda Baquero from News 4NY dropped by to chat about it. (look for the interview on News 4 NY in a few weeks)

So much of our lives are lived online yet rarely do we think about what will happen to our cyber lives once we go to the great social network in the sky.  Do you really own all that you seem to buy?  Not quite.

Illustration courtesy:  Stuart Miles/

Illustration courtesy: Stuart Miles/

When you purchase and eBook, song or movie from an online provider as a digital download, you DO NOT OWN the book, tune or flick.  You merely pay for a license to use it during your life and are not bestowed with the right to assign/give it to anyone else.  Surprise!  Bet many of you didn’t know that.  It’s not the same as back in the days of the Frick Collection or Rockefeller Library when big collections meant something and were valuable.

The files you download to your device will generally remain with your device, some as long as the account remains viable and others remain on the device indefinitely.  Yet, read the fine print, the terms and conditions of purchase.  You can’t pass that content to anyone else so if you give a fully loaded old Kindle to your niece or friend, it’s questionable whether you have the right to do so.  Sure, you can give them the physical object of the device itself but you probably don’t have the right to pass its contents to anyone else.

Therefore, the short answer is that when you die, so does your right to any of these digital files, meaning you cannot pass them along in your will.  On the other hand, if you owned actual books and discs at your death, you could bequeath those by the truckload.

We live in an electronic age when the only thing that has changed is how we share information.  The actual task of estate planning is still the same and as painful for most people who shudder at facing their own mortality.

So, what do you do with your cyberlife, social connections, photos and more?  We’ll tackle that next week.