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What Happens to Your Online Content When You Die?

Creating a digital legacy plan is a good idea

My phone pings with an alert from Facebook. It’s reminding me of a friendiversary with someone very close to me that died this year. A fresh stab of loss hits me as I close the notification. I start thinking, when we die, do we still live on in the digital universe? What happens to all of our pictures, emails, billing records and chat texts, and probably most importantly, who can access it?

There are a few reasons to allow access to your email, social and other digital accounts, and also some things you may not want shared with anyone postmortem. Here are some things to think through. Then, make a plan in advance for how you want your digital legacy to appear after you are gone.

Reasons to provide access to accounts by an heir or trusted fiduciary
There may be bills or money owed, pictures to be saved, or other aspects of a person’s digital footprint that could help a decedent’s heirs after passing. Without granting this authority in advance, access can be extremely difficult.

There was a notable case a few years back where a 43-year-old man died unexpectedly. In trying to settle his estate, his siblings realized it would make their sad task easier to have access to his Yahoo email account. Yahoo refused to allow access, citing the 1986 Stored Communications Act. The family sued, which was fought all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, where the family finally prevailed 11 years later.

What you might not want shared
You may have created some “friends only” posts or made a late night rant on Reddit, that a few years (or moments) later are regrettable. You also have a choice to not let anyone have access to social and list-serve accounts, or request the accounts be deleted on your passing.

Alternately, you could be judicious in what you post. Remember the digital permanence of what goes out on the Internet. Former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s career-ending sexting scandal comes to mind. As adults, we want our legacy to be about attributes like kindness, charity and accomplishments. Delete any ill-conceived posts as soon as the regret hits and maybe think twice about before posting anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.

Person Using Tablet And Laptop

Help managing your digital legacy and wishes
There are a variety of ways to make and manage an estate plan. While these typically include your final wishes regarding real property and transfer of financial assets, it can also include planning for what happens to digital assets. The best way to do this is to work with an attorney that specializes in estate planning to create this combined document. Working with someone in your region means they will be aware of State tax implications. 

You can indicate whether the fiduciary, the person or institution who manages money or property in your estate planning documents, are also permitted to access your digital assets.

There are also many online will and trust apps which are far more affordable. While not on par with a specialized attorney, it is better than nothing to protect your assets, avoid probate and ease the burden to your heirs.

If cost is a barrier, do something to record your digital legacy wishes, including which accounts you authorize access to and by whom. Afternote.com is a place to store details about how you want your social media pages handled, but also other things like memorial service wishes. It allows you to save notes for loved ones and create a bucket list of things to do while still alive. You can nominate up to three trustees (who must also have Afternote accounts). The service is free. While this might not be 100% effective in matters such as who can access certain assets, it does create a specific record of your wishes, which is required in most requests for information.

Creating your digital legacy
Start by making a spreadsheet list of all the accounts you can think of, including the name of the website and URL, account number, owner names. For devices, include the make, model, device name, device ID and product ID. You can express your wishes for each of these areas by category, ie “Upon my passing, I grant access to all electronic devices and benefit accounts to my daughter, Jane Smith. I also give Jane Smith access to my social media accounts in order to close them after a 6 month memorial period.”

You will want a column for your login and password (and keys for crypto currency) if you have a secure location to keep the document, such as a safe or safety deposit box. However, it is not safe to keep such a list on your phone, tablet or computer, or (shudder) on a piece of paper stored in your house, car or carried around with you in your wallet. I recommend a password locker such as LastPass, which we’ll review in a moment.

Other than assigning a trusted fiduciary, do not give your attorney or anyone else a document that lists your login and passwords. Just provide a categorized list of items and your wishes. There are situations where a will or trust document may be seen by others, including others in the law office, or your beneficiaries. You don’t want this important, sensitive and valuable information to fall into the wrong hands.

Here are the type of accounts to consider listing:

  • Electronic devices (e.g., smart phone, tablet, laptop computer, desktop computer, external hard drive)
  • Benefit accounts (e.g., airline miles, hotel rewards, retailer rewards etc)
  • Email Accounts (e.g.,Yahoo!, Gmail, AOL, Outlook, Hotmail, Juno, employer’s email account)
  • Financial Accounts (e.g., banks, credit unions, brokerage accounts, mutual funds, retirement savings accounts, credit card accounts, employee benefit accounts, PayPal, Social Security)
  • Online Merchant Accounts (e.g., Amazon, Blair, Chadwicks, eBay, Etsy, Zappos, Wal-Mart)
  • Organization Accounts (e.g., membership organizations and charitable organizations)
  • Photography and Music Accounts (e.g., Snapfish, Flickr, digital music library)
  • Publication Accounts (e.g., newspapers, magazines, blogs)
  • Social Media Accounts (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn
  • Video Accounts (e.g., YouTube, Vimeo)
  • Virtual Currency Accounts with Cash Value (e.g., Bitcoin, Farmville, Second Life, World of Warcraft)
  • Web Site Accounts (e.g., domain names, hosting services, online business accounts, and cloud storage sites such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Apple iCloud)
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Providing account access
Password managers like LastPass encrypt your account and login details, which can only be accessed once you enter a master password. Instead of dozens of account login and passwords to remember, you only have to remember your master password. 

LastPass has an Emergency Access feature you can set up in advance. You can give someone you trust access to some or all of your password vault in case something happens to you. When the trusted contact requests access, you will be notified. If you do not respond within a specified waiting period, they can access the information you have designated. You can also use this feature to reset your master password, should you ever forget it.

There is a free version of LastPass to try it out. However, you will want to spring for the Premium version, which is only $3 a month, to add the app to multiple device types and for added security features.

Account specific legacy plans
Some internet companies have built-in tools to decide how your account should be handled after you are gone.

For Google accounts, you can use the Inactive Account Manager. This gives users the option of deciding when Google should consider their account inactive, choose who to notify and what to share, and decide if your inactive Google account should be deleted. 

Facebook has memorialization settings that lets you choose someone to look after your account after you pass away. They’ll be able to:

  • Manage tribute posts on your profile, which includes deciding who can post and who can see posts, deleting posts, and removing tags
  • Request the removal of your account
  • Respond to new friend requests
  • Update your profile picture and cover photo

Your legacy contact can only manage posts made after you’ve passed away. They won’t be able to post as you or see your messages. If you don’t want a Facebook account after you pass away, you can request to have your account permanently deleted instead of choosing a legacy contact.

Check your other social media and apps for legacy plans. Technically, most social media discourages sharing your login and password with others in their terms of service. Other accounts, such as Amazon Kindle, are only granting you a license to access content during your lifetime, and these digital materials cannot be passed on like physical books or CDs. If an account does not allow you to set up a beneficiary, make sure to include the account in your estate plan

Other solutions
While you can make a digital legacy plan for yourself, you typically cannot make plans for others, even a minor son or daughter. There are many stories of parents who want to save the last photos and posts of a deceased son or daughter from social media, but because they are not friends on the account, they can’t even view it. Other parents want to investigate communications surrounding a suspicious death or suicide. To complicate matters further, states have different approaches to online privacy in the U.S. While laws are shifting to allow parental access for minor’s accounts, there is no federal provision allowing such access.  If you are not friends with your child on social media, see if there is another close family member that could connect with them on social platforms.

Noting all of your digital assets, deciding who should be legacy contacts in your account settings, designating account access through an estate plan or other recorded document, setting up a password locker and emergency access, addressing what accounts you want deleted and what content you want distributed upon your passing, are all key elements of planning for your digital legacy.

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