Many people haven't thought about what will happen to their online content after they die. Others may have made some preparations, but without proper foresight, those preparations may be inadequate to prove legal ownership, or properly transfer accounts. Still other creators may place a burden on unprepared family members to administer what, for some people, was a full-time job. Have you taken the proper legal steps to ensure that your online content is properly protected and transferred after you die?
It's unfortunate that many people think that simply leaving a note with sites and passwords, and changing the PayPal email address is enough. That way lies disaster for everyone. The heirs will not be able to show legal ownership; the taxes could end up not being reported properly, which may result in heavy fines and penalties, and the resulting mess may take years to straighten out, as well as risk losing ownership of everything you worked so hard to create.
The first step in estate planning is to consult with a lawyer who is not only a specialist in estate planning, but also has an understanding of what content you create for the internet can do. True, your articles, POD stores, images, and other creations may not have made you much money until now, but no-one can know what will suddenly become viral after being dormant for months or years. So it is important that your attorney knows of all the sites on which you have created your properties, including blogs, web sites, ebooks, "content farm" sites, photography or image sites, and videos.
In addition, you should be prepared to discuss your profiles on various sites: twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, and other sites all have content which belongs to you. You own the copyright to these profiles, and it is up to you to decide how you wish it to be handled after your death.
If your heirs are unprepared to deal with your accounts, it is best to discuss with your lawyer the appointment of a digital executor. Authors who have published traditional books appoint a literary executor who administers and manages their work after they die, decide whether to publish works posthumously, or remove or destroy that is no longer relevant, so you can appoint a digital properties executor with one sentence in your will. She or he will be responsible for renewing hosting agreements, domain name registrations, and maintaining the bank information for payments. In addition, your digital content executor can ensure that your earnings are paid correctly, and that your designated heir receives the payments. Your digital executor will also keep up with any changes to make sure that your content stays both relevant and published. Because an executor has so much responsibility, it is important that you choose someone to fulfill this function who understands internet publishing and has the time and means to take on the job. You will want to assign them a percentage of the income your content receives as a fee; this will keep your executor motivated to maintain your property well.
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You will also want to make sure you specify in your will who receives ownership of which accounts, if you have more than one heir. (Don't forget that you can designate organizations, such as a church or non-profit, in addition to individual persons as heirs, in case you want to leave a legacy to them.) Your attorney will specify this in your will, and the inheritance can be as simple or complex as you desire.
Don't forget that you will need to review each site's Terms of Service agreement with your attorney, to see that the site rules are properly followed, so that your heirs do not risk losing the legal rights to your online properties. It is vital that your lawyer understands the agreements, and the transfer process specified for each site is followed to the letter. Your attorney will make this information available to your executor after your death.
And finally, do not forget that there may be family squabbles and hurt feelings. Try to be fair in your will, and think about your heirs' situations after you pass on. You want to leave everyone in a better place than before, so be frank with your lawyer and make sure she or he understands what may happen after your will is read. Your lawyer will prepare your will with an eye to such eventualities, and with your literary executor, can advise you on strategies to protect your heirs from unscrupulous people who may try to take advantage of their ignorance.
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