Can estates include digital property? Lawmakers weigh in – McClatchy Washington Bureau

In estate planning, people take stock of their possessions: houses, money, heirlooms. But what about their email accounts, social media pages and family pictures on their smartphones?

Bills pending in more than a dozen states, including Alaska, are aimed at modernizing that area of law, using legislation proposed by the national Uniform Law Commission. The organization — composed of lawyers appointed by the states — proposes laws for issues that are regulated at the state level and need to be uniform nationwide.

Work on the effort began in 2012, after fiduciaries began having trouble accessing online bills and bank statements for those whose affairs they were managing, said Ben Orzeske, chief counsel with the commission.

Technology firms initially wanted a federal resolution and fought the effort. But since probate law is a state-level issue, the companies eventually decided to support having a uniform law across the states, Orzeske said. It’s been enacted in more than 20 states so far.

The bill, introduced in the Alaska House and Senate, recognizes the ability of someone to designate a person to have access to their email accounts or social media pages if the companies provide a way to do that. Absent that, a person can give direction in a will, trust or other written record for handling those or other so-called digital assets.

Orzeske said federal privacy laws cover electronic communications, such as text and email messages and non-public social media posts. A person would have to consent to giving a fiduciary access to those, he said.

However, the bill allows for fiduciaries in certain circumstances to get a catalog of messages, but not the substance of them, by providing documents, including a death certificate, to a service provider. A list of emails could provide a fiduciary with hints about where someone might have banked, for example.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican sponsoring a version of the bill, said people should be allowed to pass on digital photos and music and online documents to loved ones.

“In the old days, a stack of albums in the living room could be passed on to your kids. Now, if music is all digital, can you pass that on?” she said.

State law doesn’t address that now, and it’s worth looking at, Hughes said.

Coming up this week in the Legislature:

TAXES — Hearings are expected to begin Monday on proposed changes to Alaska’s oil tax and credit structure and on legislation to reinstitute a personal state income tax and use earnings from Alaska’s oil-wealth fund to help pay for state government. Both issues are expected to figure in to debate over a fiscal package to address the state’s deficit.

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