What Happens to Your Online Stuff After You Die?
Many people write wills for their physical property, but few even think about creating a plan for their digital estates. Without such a plan, your loved ones might be unable to access your digital files or the accounts could be deleted before they see them.
A digital estate plan can help ensure that every online account will be accessed or transferred to the right person. And for those with networks of online-only friends and work colleagues, a digital estate plan can help inform those virtual friends of one's actual demise.
Let's start with a look at the nature of the problem, and then we'll look at some solutions.
Terms of Service Agreements
Remember those "I agree" boxes you checked next to Terms of Service Agreements without so much as glancing at the fine print? They typically restrict "non-authorized users" (in other words, your survivors) from accessing your accounts.
Plus, they often say accounts are nontransferable. While people violate service agreements all the time without repercussions, the agreements are legal contracts and violating them is a crime, although a misdemeanor. Social media companies often say they allow heirs to delete the deceased's account and not much else. Photos, comments and stories, everything else (good and bad) is lost.
A digital estate plan will help your executor access and manage your online possessions. While they do not guarantee access (because of those service agreements), they often persuade a service provider to approve login access, especially since the contracts can change.
Creating Your Digital Estate Plan
Experts recommend following these steps.
1. Create an Inventory
Make a list of your online accounts with their usernames and passwords. Include social media sites, online bank accounts and credit cards, and utilities paid online. Remember to update them when changing accounts and passwords or at least once a year.
2. Save It
Store them in a secure location like a safe deposit box, CD, flash drive, or encrypted computer file. Password managers such as LastPass or 1Password make it easy to encrypt and securely store such data. Another popular password manager — PasswordBox — includes a feature called "Legacy Locker" that stores logins and passwords and shares them with designated people upon your death.
Don't include your logins and passwords in your actual will, which becomes part of probate court's public records.
3. Name a Digital Executor
Your digital executor can be different from your regular executor. The digital executor should be digitally adept and, like your traditional executor, be impartial and trustworthy. Be specific and name accounts the executor will be able to control, delete, and maintain.
4. Say What You Wish to Happen
Define what you wish to happen to your accounts. Do you want your Facebook account deleted or memorialized? Let your executor know if you're using Google's Inactive Account Manager. Your executor is obligated to follow your instructions.
What Google, Facebook and Others Will Do
Google recently introduced its Inactive Account Manager. You can use the tool to name a "trusted contact" to be contacted if a Google account, such as Gmail, YouTube, or Blogger, becomes inactive for any reason. If your account is inactive for a period of time, which you choose, Google sends you a text or email. If you don't respond, Google can — based on your instructions — delete the accounts or allow trusted contacts "to receive data" from the accounts.
Facebook won't release login information but will delete or "memorialize" an account on the request of heirs. Memorialized accounts are essentially frozen in time. No one can login or add or change photos or anything else. Depending on the privacy settings of the deceased person's account, friends can share memories on the memorialized Timeline.
LinkedIn says it will shut down profiles of deceased members on request. It asks heirs to complete and electronically sign a form via DocuSign. If heirs have login information, they may want to download the deceased's contacts, although it's legally unclear if the contact lists belong to the LinkedIn members or their company.
Twitter will shut down accounts of deceased users on request. According to Twitter's policy, heirs have to mail or fax a signed statement, a copy of the death certificate, and a copy of a government-issued ID like a driver's license.
When consumers purchase digital music and e-books, they technically only buy licenses to view or hear them. For instance, the iTunes terms of service agreement says accounts are nontransferable and will end if users don't meet the terms. But if agreements allow multiple computers per account, heirs could use that loophole to claim the purchased media.
Missing Login Information?
If a relative passes away without leaving login information, heirs might be able to obtain access with the proper documentation and patience.
Google says it might provide Gmail access if heirs send a copy of the heir's government-issued ID and the death certificate. But it makes no promises and warns the wait can be long.
YouTube says it might grant access "only after a careful review" if heirs provide a copy of the death certificate and power of attorney document.
Because the concept of digital wills is relatively new, it's unclear how the issue will evolve. Internet firms could change policies after more requests from grieving families. Few states have laws on digital estates but more may address the topic in coming years. Despite the uncertainty — or maybe because of it — creating a digital estate plan can help your family access your virtual self before it, too, expires.
Have you considered what will happen to your digital self — and your digital property — after you pass? What steps have you taken? Please share in comments (which are forever, unless something happens to the server, or an heir asks that they be removed).