Think about how you feel when you’ve misplaced your cell phone or forgotten it. Many of us feel immobilized as access to email communications, bill paying, social media and the like come to a halt. So much of our daily lives is now controlled by on-line accounts. Now imagine if you or a loved one were no longer able to supply log-ins and passwords. How would the lack of access to these “digital assets” of yours affect your loved ones?
A generation ago, the belongings you left behind upon death were tangible (furniture, jewelry, letters, etc.) and the history of your financial property was on paper. Today, some of the most valuable keys to our lives and identities exist digitally and are technically owned by companies like Google or Facebook.
For the digital assets stored on shared servers in the cloud, legal systems have yet to catch up to help decide who controls your data when you’re gone. Currently, only a handful of states have enacted laws to address digital estate management, and there is no uniform federal law on the topic. Therefore, if you’re in a state without clear-cut digital estate guidelines, the various service agreements of Internet companies govern what happens to our digital identities after death.
Email providers strive to protect users’ privacy, even after death, and most will not provide access to the contents of an email account. But companies have differing policies; to give you a flavor, Yahoo and Gmail handle the issue as follows.
- Yahoo: You can request that your loved one’s account be closed, billing and premium services suspended, and any contents permanently deleted for privacy. However, Yahoo will not provide passwords or allow access to the deceased’s email account.
- Gmail: You can submit an application to obtain the contents of the person’s Gmail account, but according to Gmail, only in “rare cases” will access be granted. Gmail also allows a user to name an “Inactive Account Manager”, which is a trusted person who can download some of your content in the event the account goes inactive for a certain period.
Social Media Accounts
As more and more people live on social media, precious personal information in the form of messages and photos can become trapped within a deceased person’s social media account. For example, in recent years, there have been cases where a loved one has committed suicide, and the surviving family members are desperate to access social media accounts, in hopes of finding answers to questions which could haunt them for a lifetime. For a visual guide to social media after death, see Mashable. Companies have different policies which are evolving as we speak and should be checked on regularly.
- Facebook: Users can request that a decedent’s account be turned into a memorial or removed, however for privacy reasons, the social network said it cannot provide anyone with login information. Facebook does allow you to name a legacy contact to look after your account if it’s memorialized. The legacy contact can do limited actions such as write a pinned post such as memorial information and respond to new friend requests. Currently, you can also give your legacy contact permission to download a copy of what you’ve shared on Facebook.
- Twitter: Family members can request that a loved one’s account be deactivated. However, the company will not release the password.
- Drop Box: Families can make a formal request to access the deceased person’s account, the approval of which will take time. Among other requirements, they ask for “a valid court order establishing that it was the deceased person’s intent that you have access to the files in his or her account after the person passed away and that Dropbox is compelled by law to provide the deceased person’s files to you.”
On-Line Financial Accounts
Bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and other financial companies will always allow the authorized personal representative of an estate access to the paper statements of such accounts. Access to a deceased person’s on-line account, however, is a different matter and passwords will not be released. Since most of us conduct all our transactions on-line, it would be helpful for our personal representatives to have access to on-line account information.
How to Manage Your Digital Assets
All of the above demonstrates that relying on the companies to allow access to a loved one’s account is a gamble and at best, will be a major hassle. The best way to successfully manage one’s digital assets is to give your trusted persons access to your on-line life in a sensible manner that doesn’t involve the companies themselves.
Consider preparing a complete list of your passwords, online accounts, and other digital property—and keeping it up to date. This list helps fiduciaries and family members find your online accounts and digital property, ensuring no property is overlooked, and provide for a smooth and efficient administration. Once the list is created, keep it in a secure location, like a safe deposit box or a home safe, and let your trusted persons know.
Updating a physical hard copy of a list may prove to be cumbersome, however. One solution may be to keep both an electronic list and separate written paper instructions. Create an encrypted electronic list on your smartphone or your computer and then email this list to your loved ones. Then, in a separate paper instruction sheet, describe how to find and access your encrypted electronic list, and include the master password. Keep the separate written instruction sheet in a secure location, like a safe deposit box or a home safe. Using the master password for an encrypted electronic list is also convenient for you to use while you are living because it’s secure, easy to update, and accessible at all times if it’s on your smartphone.
Digital Afterlife Services
There are several on-line companies that will both keep your encrypted electronic list and provide a mechanism for designated fiduciaries or family members to access the un-encrypted list. Some of these are Legacy Vault, PasswordBox’s Legacy Locker, and SecureSafe.
Creating a plan of action to handle one’s digital assets upon death is an often overlooked, yet increasingly important, step in the estate planning process. Eventually, there will come a time when the management of one’s digital assets will be a routine topic. Until then, know that you are on the cutting edge of handling all your affairs by dealing with this important topic now.