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Digital assets treated differently for estate planning

A joint research paper by law schools at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and UC Berkeley indicates that 83 percent of consumers believe they own digital content in the same fashion that they own material things. That is rarely the case though, according to the authors of the study. Ownership issues come up frequently with regard to digital media, and the lack of understanding can be most important when the purchaser of the content passes away.

Many End User License Agreements and Terms of Use provisions do not grant the purchaser ownership with regard to digital content. Rather, the digital book, song or other media purchased is not actually owned, at least not to the extent that it can be bequeathed. In many cases, the purchase grants the purchaser only the right to read, watch or listen to the content.

License terms vary widely, even with regard to purchases made from a single company, according to an adjunct internet law professor at Rutgers Law School. Digital media downloaded today may be subject to restrictions completely different from something downloaded yesterday or tomorrow. When it comes to estate planning, this confusion can be problematic.

One solution offered by the law professor is to store digital assets on a computer or a thumb drive and then bequeath that via a will or other estate planning instrument. He likened it to passing on a record collection. People who are unsure about the status of their various assets when they die might want to speak with an estate planning attorney, who might be able to help by designing a comprehensive plan to fit the client's circumstances and meet his or her goals.

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