Have you ever thought about what happens to your digital presence once you're no longer here to manage your online or social media accounts? You may be surprised to learn that much of your digital content and social media postings live on in various degrees of limbo after your death. Learn what actions you need to take now to ensure your final wishes are carried out.
We’ve all heard it: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” If Benjamin Franklin was around today, he might add digital presence to that short list. We’re all using the Internet to a greater extent these days—email, social media, online banking. Have you ever stopped to think about what happens to your digital presence once you’re no longer here to manage your online or social media accounts? You may be surprised to learn that much of your digital content and social media postings live on in various degrees of limbo after your death.
Why should you worry about access to your digital assets? After all, if you simply keep track of your accounts and passwords and make them available to your executor, you should be all set, right?
Not so fast. Your beneficiaries may not have the legal right to access your accounts. Email and social media providers such as Twitter and Facebook have specific Terms of Service (TOS) that provide the legal baseline governing access rights to accounts. The access rights also vary by state. While you can control who gets access to your bank account, insurance proceeds, and mutual funds, you may have surprisingly little control over who can access your digital legacy, unless you make arrangements ahead of time.
Consider the legal precedence set in the Ellsworth case.* Justin Ellsworth was killed serving his country in Iraq. Because his parents did not know his Yahoo! email password, they were barred from accessing his email account by the specific TOS for that account. The ensuing legal wrangling to gain access to the account has put us on high alert that action is required now if you want to ensure appropriate disposition of your digital afterlife.
Electronic apps make it easier to pass your access credentials to your designated heirs or your executor. First, you should consider storing the access credentials for all of your accounts in an encrypted, electronic vault, using a well-established commercial app like oneSafe, eWallet, or 1Password to securely store the user IDs, passwords, and security questions/answers for your digital accounts. Of course, you will need to tell your designated heir or executor that the vault exists and how to access it. You may want to continue to evaluate newer apps that make this process even easier. For example, PasswordBox offers a legacy feature that lets you designate another PasswordBox user as a digital heir, making your password-protected accounts accessible to that person when you die. The heir you designate can utilize the legacy feature to gain access to your accounts by simply sending a death certificate to the company.
Estate plans should now also include a smooth transition of your digital assets. At a minimum, you will want to record your digital accounts and related security information for your executor and heirs. If you have a significant digital presence, you may want to take time to understand the laws that govern digital assets in the state where you live. Your will should outline your desired instructions about your digital assets. Consult an attorney to see if other actions are warranted.
As you assemble information on your social media accounts, you will discover a trove of information that could be used to commit identity theft, steal your assets, or trash you digital valuables. Now is a good time to make sure you appropriately protect this information and the computers that can be used to access your digital assets. Strong passwords, firewalls, up-to-date systems, current antivirus, appropriate anti-malware, and good computer habits are part of the ecosystem necessary to protect your valuables.
Remember, your digital assets have sentimental, historical, and financial value. There are likely to be assets you want to preserve, such as videos, pictures, and music. However, there may also be assets you would like destroyed, such as personal correspondence or an online history of your Internet activity. No matter what your intention, it will become reality only if you diligently plan for the future and take action now to ensure your final wishes are known.
* In re Ellsworth, No. 2005-296, 651-DE (Mich. Prob. Ct. 2005).