Digital Assets: Valuable Dead or Alive

Like many soon-to-be or just-turned “40-somethings”, my wife is a child of the ’80s. With that comes a love for all things Bon Jovi. I, myself, was more of a Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC, Beastie Boys kind of kid. Yet I can’t deny catching myself belting a karaoke version of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” whenever it begins to play at a Royals game (or Chiefs game, or the mall, or the grocery store, or the drive-thru……. Well, you get the picture). So, in homage to my wife and all those like her, here are a few thoughts to consider about “Digital Assets: Valuable Dead or Alive.”

This post was inspired by an excellent article I read in the May-June 2015 edition of the Journal of the Missouri Bar, entitled “Counseling Clients for #DigitalDeath” by Jennifer A. Davis. In her article, Jennifer discussed “digital assets” in the context of ever-expanding forms of electronic media, and defined digital assets to include e-mail accounts, social networking accounts, photo and video sharing accounts, online sales accounts, websites, blogs, online financial/banking/investment accounts, credit cards, auto bill-pay agreements, and much more. Her article resonated with me when I started thinking about all the clients we represent in wrongful death claims after the passing of a loved one caused by someone else’s negligence or other wrongful conduct. Families dealing with the recent wrongful death of a spouse or child face many difficulties before even considering how to deal with digital assets, which makes it all the more important for each of us to intentionally take the time to organize our digital assets, including access to those assets (URL, username, password, etc.), in a way that would allow a trusted confidant to access and manage those digital assets if we were to become suddenly unavailable. Here are three of Jennifer’s thoughts that I intend to start sharing with my own family and friends, and every client whom we represent in a claim for the wrongful death of their loved one:

1. Digital assets have sentimental value. Today, photos, videos, letters (e-mails) and even recipes are stored online — replacing the albums, journals, and recipe boxes of the past. Blogs, websites, and social network pages may likely have very personal value to family members. If family members are unable to access these sentimental items, a deceased’s family history, and possibly heirlooms traditionally passed down from generation to generation, could be lost.

2. Digital assets may have financial value. Recent studies have shown that most people value their digital assets at approximately $55,000. There may be intellectual property rights of value. The domain name itself may be valuable, and may be an asset which could be sold for a windfall. Likewise, blogs (although probably not this one) have been sold for significant value. Additionally, a Web page or social media account may produce a revenue stream. There may also be value in items not traditionally thought of as valuable, such as a virtual sword for an online game sold for $16,000, or the parcels of virtual real estate sold in 2010 for $635,000.

3. Digital assets may be valued by measuring the money saved by accessing and controlling financial accounts online. Many people now receive and pay bills electronically, with no written record in existence of the location of the account, the bills due, or how to access either one. The failure to pay these bills online, or the account fees incurred from failing to manage the financial account, can all lead to serious consequences.

In addition to thinking through the impact digital assets have on people dealing with the wrongful death of a loved one, I also found my thoughts drifting to the larger ways digital assets impact and contribute to, and sometimes dictate and control, all our daily lives. I also see the impact digital assets, primarily social networking, have in the personal injury and business litigation cases we handle. Right or wrong, the first thing I do at the beginning of any new case is google both my client and the opposing party. I am continuously amazed at what I find, from people claiming severe shoulder injuries posting pictures of pitching at softball games, to businessmen/companies pleading poverty while writing blogs about the new deal they just closed that will secure their company’s financial stability for the next decade.

I also see the impact of digital assets in my own personal life. My pastor recently cited statistics showing that, not only in-spite-of but often because-of the explosion of electronic media and social networking, we are living in one of the most isolated and individualistic societies in history. People are more and more eschewing personal human interaction for the “convenience” of clicking a button or tapping a keyboard. Instead of shopping at stores and interacting with the cashier, we add items to our Amazon Prime “shopping bag” and then wait at home for them to magically appear on our doorstep in 3-5 business days. Instead of going to the bank to make a deposit or withdrawal and saying hello to one of the other moms from the little league team who manages that branch, we set up auto-deposit or just drive through an ATM. We sit alone on the couch and tweet about “life,” or post cute videos and pics from other people’s lives and adventures, instead of scheduling a cookout with friends and leaving the phone in the bedroom, or taking our own adventure “to where no cell tower has gone before.”

I’m not a culture basher. I not only use, but thoroughly enjoy, digital assets such as social media and the convenience of online shopping and banking. But I also like to look a person in the eye and share a meal, or take a road trip and really hear about how they are doing and who/where they want to be in the future. We were created to live in a community, and are always better together than living as an island. My hope is that we will all take the opportunity to gain control of our digital assets to not only make things easier for our loved ones once we are dead, but so we can begin experiencing life more abundantly with our loved ones while we’re still alive.