When a person dies, their will or a court governs how their property is handled. In the digital realm, though, passwords and encrypted data often make it impossible, says Jim Lamm, an estate planning and tax attorney at Minneapolis-based Gray Plant Mooty.
Lamm says the issue is becoming a problem. Currently, Minnesota has no legislation on digital assets after death—only seven states have passed laws on the subject, and Lamm says they have all fallen short.
This can be a big problem for small and medium-sized businesses, especially sole proprietorships. “If a small business runs their sales and accounts through a free email system like Gmail and they haven’t planned ahead, no one else may be able to access it if the user dies,” Lamm warns. “I’ve talked to some business owners that had an employee die who used a Yahoo email account for business. The business couldn’t get into his account, so they couldn’t track sales or orders—it was a nightmare.”
There are four issues that distinguish estate planning in the digital world: passwords, encryption, data privacy laws and criminal statutes on unauthorized computer access.
So Lamm pitched a new law to the Chicago-based Uniform Law Commission that would treat computer, smartphone and online accounts as it does traditional property, such as real estate and bank accounts. As of press time, Lamm says he was almost certain the commission would approve the law at its annual meeting in July, after which Lamm says he will work to have Minnesota to adopt it.