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Digital Asset Planning: The Problem with Online Afterlife Companies

today tomorrow

Last June I wrote an Introduction to Estate Planning for Digital Assets. I discussed some of the unique and dynamic issues along with the importance of maintaining a digital asset inventory and including enabling provisions in estate planning documents.

I also highlighted the emergence of so-called online afterlife companies. These companies provide various services with different emphasis, but most include one or more of the following features:

  • Online data organizer for accounts and passwords
  • Digital storage of important documents
  • Assigning “beneficiaries” to accounts
  • Sharing a collection of videos, photos and text
  • Online memorials

TheDigitalBeyond.com provides the definitive list of these Online Afterlife Service Providers. It’s a dynamic list — names are added and subtracted frequently. Co-founder of The Digital Beyond, Evan Carroll, says he learns about a new service “almost weekly”.  On the flip side, these start ups often have short shelf lives themselves. In a blog post entitled RIP Digital Legacy Startups, Carroll writes:

“Following a few emails over the last few weeks, I decided to verify and clean up our list. Of the 61 companies on the list, I deactivated 26 because their website was no longer functioning or displayed that the domain name was now for sale. If you pardon the pun, that’s a mortality rate of 42%.”

Here today, gone tomorrow

You can see the problem here — durability.  If you’re selecting a service provider for e-mail or cable TV, durability might not be a huge issue. They’re short-term engagements and you can get a new one. But by its nature, this is a service that needs to remain around, probably for a long time, to serve its purpose. As it stands now, it’s hard to have much confidence.

It’s still important though to organize and store data and to enable access to successors. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Do what works for you. If you think one of these services will endure and be useful for you, go for it. I’m just not confident enough at this stage to recommend any particular service to clients.

At a minimum, I think it’s going to take quite a bit of time to sort out. I wonder if eventually the best of the best will be bought out by major internet players (e.g. Google, Amazon, Facebook). Oftentimes that’s the natural progression, though this particular service has some delicate issues, both legal and personal, so I’m not sure if that will happen.

Last August I mentioned a new service, EstateMap, available through estate planning attorneys to their clients. It looked interesting, well-organized and run professionally, so I planned to check it out. Estate Map recently announced that it’s discontinuing that service in May and instead will offer a direct-to-consumer service called Navigatr. It promises to offer similar services and looks appealing. If anyone tries it out, let me know. I hope it endures.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net