What happens to your Facebook profile after you die? Will your executor have access to your email account or your photo collection in cloud storage? What about your e-books and iTunes collection?
If you don’t know, you need to make a digital estate plan.
Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the digital world creates barriers for families and executors seeking access to the online accounts after someone dies.
Lawyer Karl Martens of Robertson Stromberg, addressed these issues when he spoke to the Estate Planning Council of Saskatoon. He said that Canadian legislation lags behind technological change. Privacy laws, in particular, make it difficult for your executor to take over your online accounts.
When you sign up for an online account, the terms of service agreement normally restricts access to the account-holder only.
In the US, 19 states have created laws to protect people’s digital assets and to give the deceased person’s family the right to access and manage online accounts. No similar laws have been enacted in Canada yet.
Inventory digital assets
For your digital estate plan, make a letter of direction that has an inventory of your digital property, especially when there is financial or sentimental value. Your inventory should include desktop computers, smartphones, online banking, photo sharing accounts, blogs, Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile, cloud storage, gaming accounts and utility accounts that you manage online.
Once you have catalogued all of your digital assets, hardware devices and online services that you use, you should tell your executor what you wish to have happen to them after your death.
Record usernames and passwords (off-line or in a secure manner) so your executor can easily gain access to your devices and online accounts.
Service providers may not issue hard copies of bills and statements to an executor who does not know the proper log-in details.
You will need to keep your estate letter of direction in a secure but accessible location — in a locked file cabinet or with your lawyer, for example. Keep it up to date. Then, make sure that your executor knows the location of your letter of direction.
Don’t include any digital access information in your will because a probated will becomes a public document.
Someone in your immediate family or your executor will have to decide whether to delete your social media profile entirely or become the trusted “legacy contact” who sets up and manages a memorial site. Your executor will need to review the terms of service agreements to see who owns the content.
Specify whether you would like photos, email messages and other documents archived and transferred to family members, friends or business colleagues. Should some accounts be deleted or erased?
iTunes and e-Books
There are some digital assets that you cannot legally bequeath to anyone. You pay for a personal licence to use digital files, such as iTunes music files or e-books, but you have no right to resell or give away your licence.
Do you have a blog or YouTube videos that will continue to generate advertising revenue after you die? Are you selling items through an online store? You need to authorize a “digital executor” to take control of your online business after you are gone.
Credit card rewards points, Bitcoins, digital wallets, domain name registrations can have significant financial value that needs to be safeguarded until they are either transferred to beneficiaries or sold.
As we increasingly use electronic devices and email, much of our financial correspondence is digital — and not recorded anywhere else. Your executor will need that information to settle your estate.