Digital Life, After Death

Your assets and cherished memories will be deleted forever unless you act now.

A woman who we will call Janice left little behind when she died in a hospital. She was in her mid-60s and suffered from emphysema caused by years of heavy smoking.  Janice had very few friends and was estranged from her family at the end and left virtually nothing behind.  But she did have a few email accounts and a Facebook page.  Her daughter would have liked to be able to go through her mother’s words, her emails, to piece together the last years of her life. That was really Janice’s only legacy.” Unfortunately, like the vast majority of Americans, Janice prepared neither a will nor a list of her user names and passwords to help her family access her online accounts after her passing.

Americans are increasingly finding themselves in situations like Janice’s daughter – locked out of their loved one’s digital devices, cloud storage or online accounts when the person dies.

So much of people’s assets these days are digital.  It’s no longer about going through the attic to find a box full of old photos, memories, and whatever else.  Instead, Twitter feeds and blogs have replaced diaries, email has replaced letters, and digital photos – often saved to external cloud storage – have replaced printed photographs and albums.

Most people don’t think about these assets. They have a list of who gets what furniture and the car, but not how their loved ones get access to the photos or videos of the grandkids. Some digital assets, such as domain names, PayPal and eBay accounts, online businesses, and Bitcoins (online currency), have actual monetary value. Others (email and photos, for example) are not inherently valuable, but can have enormous sentimental value – especially for family members longing for memories.

Failure to plan ahead with a will that includes digital assets can cause heartache for family members, lead to lengthy legal battles for access, and possibly even result in the loss of these digital valuables.

So if you’ve ever thought about what will happen to your cherished online photo albums, Twitter handle, or Facebook page when you die, listen to the experts.

Following a few simple steps can mean the difference between protecting your digital legacy and allowing it to expire along with you.

  • STEP 1: Inventory your digital assets. Make a list of all hardware (computers, tablets, hard drives), as well as social media and email accounts, online banking and business accounts, domain names, intellectual property, and any cloud-based storage. List all account user names, passwords, secret questions, and other information required to log in. Do not put this information in your will, as it could become public record. Instead, store the login information in a secure location that’s detailed in your will.
  • STEP 2: Decide what you’d like done with each account. Not all photos or emails, for example, are meant for relatives’ eyes. Think carefully before giving blanket access to heirs. It is better to give specific instructions.
  • STEP 3: Put it in your will. If a service provider offers an online tool to allow its users to determine what they’d like done with their account after death, then users should take advantage of it. If not, users must address in their will what they want done.

Consumers also need to know what they can bequeath. For example, unlike CDs and DVDs, you can’t pass down your iTunes library to an heir because online stores sell digital media as licenses – legal contracts that allow usually just one person to use a digital copy of the recording.

Here are some well-known service providers’ digital afterlife policies:

GOOGLE

  • In 2013, Google established Inactive Account Manager (found in Google Account Settings). This allows “trusted contacts,” whom you designate, to be notified if a person’s Google accounts are inactive for a period of time. Google will notify these “trusted contacts” with a message detailing what the user has asked to be done with the accounts.

FACEBOOK

  • Like Google, Facebook allows its users to choose what will happen to their account after they die. Facebook users can designate in their settings one “Legacy Contact” – a friend or family member who will be granted limited access to their profile – and can decide whether they want their profile officially memorialized or if content is to be deleted after death. It is estimated that 10,000 of the more than 1.8 billion Facebook users die every day.

TWITTER

  • Twitter does not have an online tool for users to decide ahead of time what should be done with their account upon death. However, Twitter will consider a request to remove the account of the deceased or incapacitated person if contacted by the person authorized to handle the account holder’s estate.

APPLE (including iCloud)

  • Apple’s terms of service contain a “No Right of Survivorship” clause that users must agree to before using the company’s products. This clause states: “You agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death.” Only a court order can change this.

YAHOO

  • Yahoo has a strict policy of not allowing any relatives or even estate executors to access another person’s account, whether that person is dead or alive. Upon death, Yahoo will close the account and delete the content.
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Written by Legacy Planning Law Group

Legacy Planning Law Group is dedicated to working with individuals and families to help protect the assets they have built throughout their life, and make everything simpler for families who have lost a loved one. We help thoughtful people achieve the peace of mind that comes with planning their personal legacy and passing on family harmony.