Serious concerns about our “digital afterlife” have emerged thanks to the rapid rise of social media. When the time comes to settle a deceased person’s estate, digital property is a relatively new and growing problem. This type of “asset” simply did not exist 20 years ago. Estate planning and your digital afterlife now go hand in hand.
Digital property is any digital record you own or control – including financial accounts, email, social media, blogs and digital files like music, movies, books and photos. Access to these is limited by the “terms of service” you agreed to when creating an account or buying a product online. Because of privacy laws, many services don’t allow you to pass account control to others upon your death — even if you include it in your will — creating significant legal and emotional challenges for your family.
On the plus side, some companies and services are understanding of the challenges and taking steps to help ease the problem.
In 2013, Google became one of the first major internet companies to put control of data after death directly into the hands of its users. You can now specify what you’d like to happen to your data after you pass away. You can choose to delete data after a certain time period, or to pass the data (from accounts such as Gmail, cloud storage, YouTube, etc.) to a designated person(s). It’s important to note, however, Google doesn’t allow you to pass control of accounts – just the data.
Last year, Facebook (FB) introduced a new feature that lets you choose a “legacy contact” – someone who can manage the memorialized account after your death. You may choose to give that person permission to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information shared on FB. The legacy contact will not be able to log in as you or see your private messages. Alternatively, you can request that FB permanently delete your account after death.
Until more service providers follow FB’s and Google’s lead, there are steps you can take to protect digital assets.
- Find out if your service providers have a way of naming a person who can access digital assets in the event of your death.
- Back up important items from the cloud into some “tangible” form that can be given to your heir(s).
- Explain to loved ones today what you would like to happen to your digital accounts upon death.
- Create a comprehensive record of accounts/passwords. Store it in a safe place, and tell your personal representative how to find it.
- If you don’t want anyone to have access to your online accounts after your death, do not provide them with access. Make account names/passwords difficult to guess, and inform service providers of your wish to have accounts deleted when you pass away.