New MI law focuses on digital assets after death

Posted at 1:59 PM, Mar 30, 2016

Concerned about your digital life after death? 

A bill recently signed into law by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder now lets you designate a person in your will to have access to your digital assets.

The legislation was introduced by State Rep. Anthony Forlini and provides some clarity when it comes to bequeathing your pictures, emails and other digital records. Social media account ownership can also be handed over in the event of your death. 

In the bill, a digital asset is defined as "an electronic record in which a user has a right or interest."

Forlini told the Associated Press it wasn't easy to get tech companies and lawyers to agree on the rules.

“Courts are in uncharted territory on this issue, said Rep. Forlini in a statement on the Michigan Republican House's website. "Traditional probate law does not currently address digital assets which has left courts, families and technology companies unsure of how to divide and grant access to digital assets and accounts when a loved one dies or becomes incapacitated."

Michelle Rubin, an associate attorney in the Estate Planning Group at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, says the new law will prove helpful especially when a person becomes unfit to manage their assets and still needs to pay their bills. With companies encouraging paperless billing, your loved one's mail may not hold the key anymore. 

"This is really a unique situation now," said Rubin, noting that the new law is a "very good start." 

Even though the legislation provides more guidance as to the ownership of your digital assets after you die or become incapacitated, it may not be easy for your appointed person to retrieve them.

"It seems like quite a process if you have a lot of different accounts," said Rubin. 

Designated personal representatives will still have to provide a number of documents to gain access to your virtual world.  

Regardless, Rubin says these types of laws becoming enacted in different states will likely encourage tech companies or "digital custodians" to create online tools that let you choose what happens to your account after you pass away.

"I’m guessing each digital custodian or company is probably going to come up with a form to fill out, I think it will become more streamlined," said Rubin.

She points to Facebook as an example.  

Facebook allows users to choose a "legacy contact" to take care of their account after it's memorialized. The appointed person can write pinned posts, respond to new friend requests and update profile and cover photos in the event of the user's death, according to the social media site. 

You can also choose to allow your legacy contact to download a copy of your shared material on the social media site or opt to get rid of the account entirely. 

One caveat: "The online tool you fill out would override your will. You want to make sure it's consistent," noted Rubin. 

Not really a fan of someone managing your social media accounts when you're gone? The new law will also allow you to prohibit or specify what can and can't be released in terms of digital assets.  

To find out more about your options under the new law, contact your family lawyer. 

Read the full legislation below: 

Bill No. 5034