Ask Kip: Create a digital estate plan

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Q: What will happen to my social media or other online accounts after I die?

A: What will happen to these online accounts after your death depends on the laws in your state, the types of accounts involved and the terms of service governing the accounts. An executor does not automatically gain access to the accounts unless the deceased person has made specific arrangements. And heirs often find that they don’t have clear authority to access or manage a family member’s accounts. But you can take steps to increase the likelihood that your digital footprint will be handled according to your wishes.

You’ll need to make a list of what you have, name someone to act on your behalf, and provide your designee with access and instructions. Start by creating an inventory of your digital assets, including all of your online accounts. As you create a list of the accounts and their passwords, note your wishes or instructions for any you would like handled in a specific way. For example, you may request that your social media accounts be deleted or that digital photos stored in the cloud be shared with specific people.

Problems may still arise. Passwords expire, people forget to update their lists, and many sites require two-factor authentication that could go to a cell phone or email address that is no longer accessible, says Sharon Hartung, author of Your Digital Undertaker. Or a website’s terms of service agreement may prohibit anyone other than the original user from accessing the account. Many sites delete accounts upon receiving notice that a user has died.

In recent years, most states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which allows you to designate a legal representative to access your digital assets after death. You can provide that access through a will, power of attorney or trust.

A small but growing number of online services have started to offer users a way to allow access to their accounts after they die. Facebook, for example, allows users to have their accounts deleted upon death or to designate a digital heir with the right to manage portions of the account, which will be turned into a memorial page. Google will let you select up to 10 trusted contacts who can access your Gmail, photos and more if your account is inactive for several months.

(Kaitlin Pitsker is an associate editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit Kiplinger.com.)