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Death and the digital afterlife

When a recent bout of family illnesses prompted Philippa and John Howell to finally set in motion plans to draw up their will, the couple's lawyer brought up something they hadn't planned to include: digital assets.

Like most of us, the first things that came to mind in devising an estate plan were tangible items, such as their house, personal effects and financial resources, as well as the care of their young daughters. However, once the Toronto couple started thinking about how much of their life exists online -- from photos and videos to banking and health-related information -- they recognized how important it was to account for digital assets.

In fact, it's prompted Philippa to reorganize the family's digital life and ensure everything is properly backed up. "It's really important to protect all of this. If anything had happened to us the girls wouldn't know where or what to look for."

Plus, their eldest daughter has a number of health-related issues, so documentation is key to ensuring she gets the ongoing support she needs.

A changing society
The Howells in their fastidiousness, however, are in the minority. A recent report from BMO Retirement Institute reveals 58 per cent of Canadians who have made formal estate planning arrangements have not made provisions for their digital assets.

In the report, "Estate planning in the 21st century: New considerations in a changing society," the organization points out, "While the basics of estate planning have been the same for centuries, the traditional approach needs to be broadened to reflect changing realities."

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In most cases, people just don't think about it (55 per cent) or think it necessary (32 per cent).

They couldn't be more wrong, says Tina Di Vito, head of BMO Retirement Institute. "Think about what you do day-to-day -- more and more individuals of all age groups are becoming wired and using digital technology."

In fact, 86 per cent of Canadian boomers use at least one financial online tool. Plus many are actively involved online in financial activities, social networking and online data collections, including photographs and music.

For those who question if it's relevant to their estate planning, BMO asks: "What digital assets do you use?"

Consider:

  • Online bank account
  • Electronic statements
  • Online investment account
  • Online bill payment -- credit cards, phone bills
  • Online store accounts -- Amazon, eBay
  • E-mail
  • Loyalty programs -- frequent flyer miles, grocery store points
  • Virtual money -- PayPal
  • Social media accounts -- Facebook and Twitter
  • Entertainment accounts -- iTunes
  • Photo storage/sharing -- Flickr, Picasa
  • Personal websites or blogs

What happens to all of it when you die? Who will pay your bills, cash out your Air Miles, run your online business, organize the family photos or inherit your iTunes collection? With the BMO survey indicating 99 per cent of North Americans use at least one personal online tool, it's increasingly important to figure it out.

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-- Posted June 13, 2012
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