When I was a kid in the 1980s, my parents took family photos on a Kodak disc camera. The camera had 15 exposures on each film disc, which then had to be dropped off for processing and required a second trip to the store to pick up the photos. My mom sorted through the developed prints and filled photo albums with the best shots; the photos where everyone’s eyes are open and looking at the camera or that commemorate a first day of school, my brother riding his first bike, me proudly hoisting a perch on the end of a fishing line or some other rite of passage. The photo albums lived in an end table in the living room. The rest of the prints – the ones where our eyes glowed with red-eye or the subjects were blurry or the end result was just not as good as the album version ended up in the bottom drawer in that same end table.

With digital and cell phone cameras eliminating the need to purchase and develop camera film, coupled with ridiculous amounts of online storage, the average family photo collection has grown exponentially in size while far fewer photos are actually printed and displayed. Where are the rest of those family photos? Very likely in the cloud, along with emails, search history, and a myriad of other digital records that we create and keep and don’t think about too often – or at all.

At the end of last year, I read this fascinating article by New York Times journalist Kashmir Hill about her quest to collect all of her own online data. The author chronicles her quest to obtain her data by using online tools such as Google’s Takeout. She then grapples with what to do with the sheer volume of digital files that can accumulate over time on Google, Apple, Instagram, and other online accounts, comparing the advice of digital archivists who advocate saving every last bit to the advice of other archivists who recommend curating what is saved.

What does this mean from an estate planning perspective? First, keep in mind who will be sorting through your digital archive after you die. Typically, the personal representative of your estate will have the legal authority to access your digital assets. However, some online service providers will allow you to designate a legacy contact in your account settings who will have the legal authority to access your data, download files, and delete your account. Then, consider what you want the person who has access to your online accounts to do with your emails, photos, and other files. They will need some direction from you regarding how to find the important stuff and what you want to happen to it. This could mean taking time to sort through photos and files now and save the ones with significance someplace distinct – or deleting the files and photos that are best forgotten. This type of digital asset planning should also take into account that technology will continue to change and evolve and that even digital files may not last forever if the format becomes obsolete.

Hill concludes her article by considering how our use of copious online storage might impact the legacy we leave after we die, writing, “By keeping so much, more than we want to sort through, which is almost certainly more than anyone else wants to sort through on our behalf, we may leave behind less than previous generations because our accounts will go inactive and be deleted. Our personal clouds may grow so vast that no one will ever go through them, and all the bits and bytes could end up just blowing away.” If we don’t take the time to select the things that matter most and separate them from the noise – my mom placing that photo of me catching my first fish in the photo album- we risk those moments being lost forever.

This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.

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