How to Protect Your Digital Assets After Your Death
Let’s face it: your Email account, Facebook page and digital photo albums are all going to outlive you. You must make decisions for how your online legacy will be managed after your death, just like you would for your home or financial assets.
Your digital assets are valuable
Your digital assets can have monetary value, just as your homes and cars do. Digital music libraries and Internet domain names you may own can often be sources of wealth. According to Sedo, a domain name retailer, the domain name HotelsGuide.com recently sold for $60,000. It would be a mistake for you to assume that your digital assets are immaterial to your overall estate. Digital assets that seem trivial to you may in fact be extremely valuable to your heirs.
A digital estate plan can also preserve online content that will have sentimental value to your family once you die. Facebook’s “memorialization” feature is a prime example of this. When you die your family can request that your Facebook account be “memorialized.” This means that your online friends can still leave comments, pictures and videos, but no one is allowed to log into the account. This comforting stream of posts creates a way for your friends, family and co-workers to remember you during the holidays or on your birthday.
The importance of creating a digital estate plan
You are likely the only person who knows the contents of your online accounts. When you die, these unmonitored accounts will continue to hold sensitive information, such as your credit card number. This can put your estate at risk for digital identity theft when you die because con artists will use these unwatched accounts to glean your personal information. The information can then be used to fraudulently open credit cards in your name and make purchases.
A digital estate plan gives your heirs or executor the legal ability to access valuable photos, videos and banking information. This plan is necessary because giving someone your username and password does not legally authorize them to access or manage your online accounts when you die. For example, if your deceased husband has an Amazon account, which contains his credit card information, it is technically illegal for you to use his username and password to log into his account and remove that sensitive data. In an attempt to curb identity theft, a mix of online user agreements and state and federal laws have made it illegal for anyone but the account holder to access information they have stored in the digital realm. These changes have severely restricted a family’s ability to access, manage and protect a deceased individual’s digital information. Your digital estate plan works as a way to navigate around this complex web of user agreements and laws.
What to include in your digital estate plan
An inventory of your online accounts.
You should create a master list of every website you use, and your user name, password and security question for each website. Include everything: email accounts, social media websites, your blog, photo sharing websites, online shopping websites (such as Amazon), credit card accounts, and online bill paying websites.
Several companies have created software that makes this task easier. Lastpass.com and 1Password are password-management programs that encrypt all of your username and password information, and then store it on your computer. You can give the Executor of your estate a master password for the program so that they can easily retrieve the data.
Appoint someone to manage your online accounts.
In your will (or trust) you can grant the executor of your estate the legal ability to manage and close your online accounts, and to remove valuable information from the accounts when you die. This expressed grant of power lends credibility to the executor when they reach out to companies in an attempt to manage your digital assets. For example, Amazon.com has a very complex user agreement that does not clearly state what your executor is entitled to do to your account once you die. Amazon ends the user agreement by stating “for communications concerning this Agreement, please contact Amazon by email.” If your executor did need to reach out to Amazon to request that credit card information be removed, the company is more inclined to work with them if Amazon is positive that you granted your executor that power.
Proactively reach out to companies
Finally, you and an estate-planning attorney can draft a letter authorizing companies that hold your online information to release it to the executor of your estate. As previously discussed, online user agreements and state and federal law have made it illegal for your executor to access your accounts directly. This letter expressly allows the company to release the contents of your account to your executor. This can help to alleviate the company’s fears about being sued for releasing such information, thus making them more likely to work with your estate representatives.