You may think you’re ahead of the game if you’re among the fewer than half of Americans who’ve created estate-planning documents such as a last will and testament. But if you haven’t addressed your digital assets, you may not be not done yet.
As we move more of our lives onto the cloud, it becomes increasingly important to make plans for what happens to our digital assets, from the valuable (think online bank accounts or brokerages) to the emotional (think baby photos or wedding videos).
It’s not realistic to simply expect your friends and family to log in on your behalf to close down or clean up accounts after you die. “You can’t just hand out passwords to people,” says Mari Galvin, a partner at the law firm Cassin & Cassin, who specializes in estate planning. “If you don’t point out somewhere that you’re giving them lawful consent to access your accounts, that person could be subject to fraud or unlawful use charges.”
More than 40 states have passed laws that give designated heirs the right to access digital accounts after the owner of those accounts has died. In general, though, you’re bound by the service agreements and privacy policies of the websites or apps themselves. Most websites don’t have mechanisms for users to designate heirs, says Suzanne Brown Walsh, a partner at law firm Murtha Cullina, who worked on drafting the law.
When dealing with websites like Dropbox or Shutterfly, family members who’ve been given power of attorney or have been appointed as a fiduciary must mail in proof of their authority and proof that the account owner has died. “When you’re estate planning, your will should include language giving your fiduciary access to your accounts,” Walsh says. “That shows the provider that the decedent (the person who died) wanted the fiduciary (the person administering the estate) to access the accounts. If the provider balks, you can point to the document.”
You’ll probably want to give your heirs access to all your online accounts and passwords, but that’s easier said than done. The average American has more than 100 accounts registered to his email address. If it’s that hard to keep track of your own passwords, it’s probably going to be tough to keep someone else up to date.
A password manager can help. These services generate secure passwords for your accounts and keep them encrypted in an online vault that only you can access. In addition to making it easier for you to manage your own passwords, they often allow someone else to access your passwords (and your accounts) in case of an emergency. While the methods of activating the emergency contact feature vary slightly, most password managers follow a similar protocol, says Craig Lurey, CTO of the password manager Keeper.
Rather than sharing all your passwords with your chosen person now, you can simply tell her that you’d like her to be your “digital” emergency contact. If something happens to you, she should request access. Once she does so, the password manager will contact you for approval. After a set period of time passes without a response from you, the person making the request will receive access.
Large password managers, including Keeper, Dashlane and LastPass, allow users to directly add or update their emergency contacts when logged into their account. (Password manager 1Password does not have an emergency contact feature, but it allows users to create an emergency kit that would give heirs access to the account.) Your digital emergency contacts are “not receiving your password, just the ability to decrypt your data,” Lurey says. “If you haven’t appointed emergency contacts, no one will be able to access that data.”
You may have additional options when it comes to certain social sites.
Do you want your Facebook account to remain active for posterity as a Facebook memorial page, or do you want your profile to be shut down after you die?
Once someone tells Facebook that you’ve passed away, the site automatically “memorializes” your account by writing the word “remembering” above your profile. You can set up a “Facebook legacy contact” to manage the account after you’ve passed away, but that person can’t remove or change posts, read your messages or remove friends.
The legacy contact can request to remove your account entirely. So can family members, even if they haven’t been designated as the legacy contact, but they’ll need to provide proof that you’ve died, as well as proof of their authority to act on your behalf. If you have specific wishes regarding your Facebook account, you might want to write them out explicitly in your estate planning documents.
You can also let Facebook know if you’d prefer to have your account deleted after you die. To do that, go to the Settings tab and click on “manage your account.” Rather than appointing a legacy contact, select the option to request account deletion after you pass away.
Google lets you designate an inactive account manager who will be able to download data from your Google accounts, including Mail, Drive and YouTube. Unlike Facebook, this is triggered by inactivity rather than specific news of your death--the person will receive a notification with instructions for accessing your data if you haven’t logged into any of your accounts for a set period of time.
If you own Bitcoin or some other cryptocurrency, it’s especially important to make sure there’s a way for your heirs to access your digital key (password) to the exchange or crypto wallet where you store the currency. Unlike other online accounts, there’s no way to access those accounts without the key. If you pass away and haven’t shared that information, the value of those investments will be lost.
“You’re almost back to the old days where people would keep stock certificates under their mattress,” Galvin says. “Unless someone knew those certificates were there, the stock would go unclaimed.”
As with all estate planning, you’ll probably want to revisit your digital plan every few years to adjust for new accounts and changes in your relationships. If you get married or divorced, for example, you’ll want to make sure that you still want the person you’ve designated as your digital heir to have the job.
While thinking about your own death is never a pleasant task, taking these steps could make a difficult time for your loved ones slightly less stressful.
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This material is designed to provide general information on the subjects covered. It is not, however, intended to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.
We are not a law firm, are not licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction and do not provide any legal advice. If you do need legal advice for your specific situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional.
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