If you were to pass away suddenly, would your heirs know how to access your online information? Would they know that your Facebook account could remain in a digital limbo for years? Would they know that it would be open to anyone who wants to look at your profile and your friends and all your photos? And what about your online financial accounts? Who would have access to those to determine their value?
There was a time when wills and estates dealt only with the disposition of physical assets, bank accounts, life insurance, and securities. But today, there’s an entirely new area that you have to plan for – your digital assets.
When you consider just how much our lives have shifted online, the need to set-up a digital estate is compelling. Our online lives represent deeply emotional, enduring aesthetic experiences; and there’s the financial value of our online existence as well.
So, consider this list of digital assets. Then, imagine your loved ones and executors trying to navigate them to assess their personal and financial value. Now, I know this is a long list! But it will give you a sense for the size of your online life.
– Online commerce sites owned by the deceased
– Social media accounts
– Digital photographs
– YouTube uploads
– Investment accounts, bank accounts
– Air miles and other rewards programs
– Domain names
– Music and movies
– Data stored on a hard drive, thumb drive, DVD, CD, backup drive
– Medical records
– Shopping accounts
– Client lists
And then there’s the tricky issue of all those passwords. Unless you have set-up a digital assets will or estate plan, your family members do not have access to those passwords, or those accounts. And, in some cases, sharing those passwords is illegal. More on that later.
Social Media Limbo
When it comes to social media, many people report having to suddenly deal with the legal departments of those companies to gain access to the deceased accounts. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter will memorialize a deceased account, but only if they are informed. If not, those accounts remain in a digital limbo where anyone can post messages, obtain information on the deceased, and continue look at posts of friends. Research indicates that there are an estimated 30 million dead people on Facebook.
Online Financial Assets
Trying to establish the monetary value of the estate can be challenging if the deceased has shifted to online bill payments, direct deposits, and managing mutual fund portfolios electronically. Most financial institutions have clear cut policies for executors and family members to access online accounts. But, it still requires an estate plan with rights and responsibilities established for the executor.
Not All Terms of Service Are Created Equal
The fact is, the social media companies have tremendous control over the content posted by their users. So, don’t assume that all your photos and posts are exclusively yours. Social media user agreements spell out these details.
Gmail has their own terms of service, and Yahoo has theirs; while Facebook and Twitter have their own. This is important because you might not be able to share your email password with your heirs. And each company has different ways of dealing with the accounts of deceased users. Adding to complexity, federal laws are strict about privacy and fraud. If your family were to use your password, they could be violating laws governing computer fraud and risking a breach of privacy with the online service firms. I strongly recommend you contact me about these questions.
Tips To Protect Your Digital Assets
Make a list of all your online accounts. Include all login details including passwords and answers to secret questions. Protect this list by setting up a password service like Lastpass.com. It will encrypt login and passwords and store it on your computer.
Once you’ve got your digital assets inventory, write down where it’s stored with master password. Store that note in a safety deposit box.
Consider downloading your online accounts to your home computer. There are companies that offer services to download your information from Gmail, Facebook, and other online accounts. Mozy.com is a service that offers this.
Most importantly, set-up a digital assets will and estate plan that takes into consideration what can be reasonably controlled by your executor and your heirs. You will save them a lot of heartache, frustration and effort.