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Digital Estate Planning for Designers, Photographers and Developers

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As a creative professional, your client projects, personal projects and everything else you do add up to gigabytes of digital information. What's going to happen to it after you die? Evan Carroll explains why you need a digital estate plan and walks you through how to put a plan together.

If you’re reading this article, chances are good that you’re a designer, photographer, writer or developer who doesn’t wait around for the next big thing—you’re busy creating it. Between client projects, personal projects and everything else you do, all of your creations add up to gigabytes of digital information--probably much more than you realize.

If you’re like most of us, you’ve tried different ways to organize your files and probably even have a decent backup strategy in place (and if you don’t you should probably start now). But no matter how organized or prepared you are, you may have neglected to consider what will happen to all of your digital information when you die.

You might be thinking that this is a morbid topic to bring up and perhaps it is, but I believe it’s an important one for you to consider. The reality is that most of us haven’t even considered what should happen to our tangible assets, much less our digital information. This is something that everyone should be thinking about. Simple preparation today can save your heirs an immense amount of frustration in the future.

Yet as universal as this problem is, creative professionals like us need to take this more seriously than anyone else. We have immense digital footprints, full of both real and sentimental value. The things we produce help us pay the bills, exercise our creativity and leave an impact on the profession.

So to help you understand the importance of securing your digital estate, I’ve made four observations about the way we use technology and the impact that will have on our heirs and clients. I’ll follow that with three things you can do today to start the process.

Value

Inherent in your lifestyle is the insatiable desire to create, and we’ve already covered the fact that you create more data than most people. That fact alone is a good reason to consider a digital estate plan. Even more important than quantity is the overall quality of your work. As a professional, you create really awesome stuff. If we glanced inside of your archives I’d expect to find photographs, designs, sketches, source files, code, and even notes that are all a part of something great, or something that could be great.

The products and byproducts of your craft are undoubtedly important to you, your friends and potentially to the world. As your archive grows, it’s going to become harder for your heirs to navigate it and determine what’s valuable. They might find the task too daunting and simply leave everything alone. That neglect is basically a death sentence for your data. Curation is essential to ensure that your information remains not only readable, but also available for consumption by those who want to view your work.

Here’s an example: In December 2006, early blogger and writer Leslie Harpold passed away. She left behind several websites, including harpold.com and smug.com, and countless writings scattered around the Internet. Like you, Leslie was a creator. As news of her passing spread, blogs around the world posted remembrances. It was a fitting tribute for someone who helped to create the blog format. But if you look at these tributes today, you’ll find broken links to her websites, as her family chose to remove them from the Internet. If it weren’t for her online friends, we probably wouldn’t be talking about her today. For someone who cared about others so much, it’s a shame that her work isn’t available today. Rogers Cadenhead says it best: “Perhaps this is the way it should be. No one has found an email or web page where Leslie stipulated her desires for her work in the event of her death, leaving the decision to her heirs.” So let this be a lesson that it’s especially important for you to consider this issue if your legal heirs disagree with your work and might choose to hide it away or delete it.

Organization

Unfortunately, leaving the decision and control to your heirs might not be a good thing at all. If you take a moment to think about it, you likely have a multitude of devices—laptops, tablets, mobile phones—and a multitude of places you store information—hard drives, memory cards, Web servers and cloud services.

Ideally we’d all store our files consistently, with rich metadata and documented instructions on how to access it. I’m sure that would be helpful in our own searches from time to time. The fact is, however, that this kind of organization requires discipline and time. And I know we’re all short on the latter. That means that we take shortcuts, decide to deal with things later and never get around to it. Archivists like to call this concept benign neglect. We have good intentions, but we never get around to it.

I’m sure you’ve spent hours looking for a project you’ve stored away on a disk somewhere. No matter how well your information is organized, the quantity of your collection makes it much harder to explore yourself. You can only imagine that your heirs wouldn’t have an easy time either. In fact, they might not even know what to look for or how to access it.

Work/Life Boundaries

Whether you’re a photographer, designer, developer or any other breed of creative professional, one thing is probably true—it’s hard to say where your work ends and your life begins. That’s not surprising at all. When you have immense passion for your work the line is gray at best, with side projects, personal projects, and diversions all existing alongside your professional work. And for freelancers, the divisions barely exist at all.

Some of us might have a full-time job with a laptop supplied by our employer, but I can bet that you have personal content on their computer. It’s a dangerous blend, as most employers won’t be too keen on letting your heirs spelunk around one of their computers to find your personal files. Conversely for freelancers, your heirs probably won’t know how to find work in progress for your clients or information they might need from your archives. As a full time UX designer myself, I have a both personal and work laptops. I’m dedicated to keeping work and life separate, and I’ll tell you that it’s getting harder and harder all of the time.

Expertise

We creative professionals are quite complex. Inherent in our lifestyle is that we don’t do things the easiest or most accepted way—we do things exactly the way we want to do them. This often means that our technology isn’t set up the way most others would do it.

We sometimes forget that everyone doesn’t understand the complex technology that we use everyday. Even if you’re extremely organized and consistent with all of your technology (I’m not), you’re heirs will likely need help sorting it all out. I know that my heirs would have no idea how my websites work or the difference between domain registration and hosting. For photographers, your heirs might not understand how your royalties work or even how to begin the process of finding out. Website advertising and affiliate programs are probably just as obscure, but all of these things bring real financial value to you.

For example, I have an encrypted home directory on my MacBook. This is rather convenient if my computer is stolen, but it’s a potential obstacle for my heirs if they don’t know about it and the password used to encrypt the data. Another example of my own is my web hosting. I have several websites hosted on my server, and some of them use the DNS provided by my hosting provider, yet others use a third-party DNS service, because I need more control for those.

I’m sure that it would take a techie a few hours to sort out all of the technology I use. I don’t even want to think about how long it would take my heirs to make sense of it all. The good thing is that I’ve left detailed instructions for my digital executor, and he’ll be able to take care of things for my heirs.

In terms of estate law and depending upon how things are handled in your jurisdiction, the executor of your estate may be personally liable for your estate, including your digital assets. Executors are generally required by law to ensure that there is no “wastage” in the estate as they distribute the assets. The classic example is that if you own a farm, the executor must take care of the livestock to maintain the value of the farm. While this is a hypothetical situation, it could also be agued that they must do the same for your websites and other online means of revenue, so it’s important for you to help them out.

What You Can Do

Planning ahead is the key to taking care of your digital assets. It’s a process that the industry is calling digital estate planning. There are numerous online services that help with this planning, and the second half of Your Digital Afterlife from New Riders provides a step-by-step process of how you can create your own digital estate plan, whether you use an online service or not.

While I recommend an exhaustive digital estate plan and working with your attorney to include your digital assets in your will, trust or power of attorney documents, the most important thing is that you do something, even if it’s a simple conversation with a loved one. So here are three things that you can do today to help your heirs out in the future:

  1. Create an inventory of your digital assets. This includes those things you store on your personal computer, hard drives and mobile devices as well as any important online accounts you might have. While it might sound complicated, it’s actually quite straightforward. Simply list out your assets however you might organize them. You might note that photos are located on Flickr or that client files are stored on the stack of DVDs in the closet. Be as specific as you can in the amount of time you have to dedicate to your inventory.

  2. Next consider any instructions you need to leave for accessing or understanding these assets. This usually includes relevant user names and passwords, but you might also need to leave information about additional security like encryption or your method for organizing these files. You probably want to provide specific instructions for each line item in your inventory so that your heirs will know exactly what should happen to it. Common options are giving it to someone, deleting it or archiving it.

  3. Once you’re done with this inventory, you’ll want to select a digital executor. This should be someone whom you trust and is capable enough to handle your technology needs. You’ll want to talk about your decision to make them your digital executor and let them know where they can find your inventory. Since it contains your passwords, you should put it in secure place where it won’t be accessed prematurely. Many of the digital estate planning services will help you do just that. If you want to make things more formal, you can talk to your estate planner about including these instructions in your will and providing your digital executor with the legal authority to execute your digital assets. One word of warning, however: you’ll want to keep your user names and passwords out of your will, as it can become a public record and then anyone will be able to gain access to your files.

With those simple steps, you’re well on your way to securing your creations for future generations. Of course, there’s a lot more to consider than we could cover here. While we’ve focused on the files from your creative work, I’m sure you have a collection of personal content that requires the same type of care. But that’s enough talk for now—you’ve got an inventory to complete.

For more information and a deeper dive into our digital lives and how to secure them for posterity pick up a copy of my book, Your Digital Afterlife, and visit my website, The Digital Beyond, for the latest developments.

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