Recently, a notice popped up when I logged in to LinkedIn asking me if I wanted to endorse my friend Larry for certain skills and expertise. I think so highly of him, and I would willingly endorse him. There’s just one problem. Larry passed away several years ago.
What happens to your digital life when you die? Who can pay your electronic bills, shut off automatic debits to your checking account, and let your Facebook friends know you’re gone or get into your email account? Digital estate planning is the process of answering all those questions in advance, so that your survivors can easily wind down your digital financial presence and continue or discontinue your online and social media presence according to your wishes. A digital estate plan is essential to a well-constructed overall basic estate plan, which also includes a will, guardianship provisions for any minor children, beneficiary selections, an advance medical directive (e.g., living will), and durable powers of attorney for healthcare and finances.
Choose a digital executor
An “executor” is the person who carries out the instructions outlined in your estate plan. You’ll need to identify a trustworthy – and computer-savvy—person to be your digital executor and name them in your will. That may or may not be the same person who is your overall estate executor (who will have final authority over how your wishes are carried out).
Who would you want to control your website, blog or social media accounts after your death? If for some reason they were not available, who would be your backup choice? Make sure your digital executor knows you’ve chosen them as well as whom to contact in the event of your death. Discuss your overall goals for your online presence.
Take an inventory of your digital assets
If something happened to you, what tracks would you leave in cyberspace? Pull together everything in a central list:
- Bank and brokerage accounts
- Employee benefits accounts, such as 401(k), FSA, HSA, etc.
- Credit card and loan accounts
- Other bills you pay online such as utilities, car loan, mortgage or gym memberships
- PayPal, Apple Pay, Starbucks and other digital wallets
- Amazon and other retail accounts
- Cell phone account
- Your blog or website
- Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Meetup, Snapchat, etc.
- Music and video websites (Pandora, YouTube, Vimeo, Sonos, etc.)
Home and Office
- Security system, heating/cooling, etc.
- Computer and phone systems
Organize and store login information and passwords
This can be nerve-wracking. The best protection against identity theft is not to write your passwords down. Where will you store access information for all these accounts?
Consider a password vault or password manager. This will allow you to create one strong password you can remember and will also prompt you to update your weaker passwords for each of these sites. You would then create a way to get the master password to your digital executor upon your death. Don’t know where to start? PC Magazine compares the top choices here.
In any case, don’t just give the entire account and password list to your attorney to store in their paper files. That is too risky. Consider an encrypted digital estate planning storage system such as Everplan or Principled Heart. An alternative could be to write them down and then keep them in a safe or safe deposit box. However, make sure your spouse or executor knows the combination to the safe or has the key to the safe deposit box!
Leave written instructions
Take some time to write down clear and comprehensive instructions, especially for websites and social media. What should happen with these accounts if you die? Should they be closed or taken down or maintained in memoriam? Who inherits them? Who manages them?
Check the user agreements of those sites to make sure your wishes can be implanted. Make sure your choice of digital executor is named in your written will. Don’t have a will? Check first with your HR department to see if you have access to a will creation program or legal consultation through a prepaid legal plan or employee assistance program.