The thought of sudden incapacitation or death and estate planning can be a very difficult topic for many individuals and families. Each person has a unique timetable as to when an estate is planned legally versus verbally expressing desires or wishes to loved ones or trusted advisors. However, just a digital footprint is created for internet users, the question arises as to what happens to the digital afterlife?
It is extremely important that access to your online accounts be designated properly and legally in your estate planning. Access to valuable accounts will be either severely restricted or impossible if a trusted individual does not have access to the usernames and passwords should you become suddenly disabled or pass away.
To complicate the estate planning each state has its’ own individual laws which regulate online property versus physical property. The distribution of online property is not addressed in the probate law of the vast majority of states. One would expect this to change as the distribution of online property is an ongoing issue in the probate system.
Your wishes should be specifically dictated in a will; however, usernames and passwords should never be specified in a will. A will is a public document which is filed with the court.
Designate in your will who should have access to your digital data and where their are copies of your digital inventory are located.
How To Protect Digital Assets
Free as well as paid computer programs exist to help compile the inventory. Once the inventory is complete is also needs to be updated regularly. Experts recommend a minimum of quarterly updates.
A hard copy should be printed and the location be made known to the selected advisors. A copy could be stored in a safety deposit box and the location of the safety box could be specified in the will. Experts also recommend downloading a copy to your computer which will become part of the estate as physical property. Cloud services are free and easy to access for storage also.
Be clear as to who are the beneficiaries are of financial accounts. This can be done when an account is opened or after an account is opened and changed as well in the future if necessary. Each institution has their own forms and procedures to designate a beneficiary or beneficiaries.
The question of saving a Facebook page or timeline frequently arises and particularly arises when there is no access to the Facebook account.
It is the policy of Facebook to not enter into an account; therefore you must pass the Facebook requirements as to if you would have authorization to request an account deletion or memorialization of a page or timeline.
Updated February 2015: Facebook has now added a legacy contact option. Users can find the legacy contact at settings>security>legacy contact. An executor of the facebook account can now be named as well as the option to delete the account upon death.
The executor or legacy contact will be allowed to manage your account upon your passing. While the contact will not post as you, the timeline, friends request and profile pictures can be managed.
Google has the Inactive Account Manager service which permits up to 10 trusted individuals to have access to your account(s). Google has many different services within its’ brand, the Inactive Account Manager permits specifying beneficiaries and their access for each service.
A letter of intent can be drafted which states which individuals could have access to your email accounts upon your death; however, the law is still evolving as to the legality of email access.
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