As people increasingly live—and die—online, family members and estate executors are left to sift through e-mail messages, Facebook status updates, blog posts, tweets and other digital remains that may have significant financial or personal value. And even if they have all the required passwords, many heirs will find they have no clear authority to access or manage the online accounts of the deceased. A confusing and sometimes contradictory snarl of online user agreements and state and federal laws can restrict Internet users’ ability to transfer their online accounts to loved ones after their death and prevent families from retrieving information stored in the digital realm.
Despite the devilish details, it’s essential to include online accounts in the estate-planning process. Failure to plan ahead may prevent loved ones from recovering family photos or videos or settling your final bills. It also could leave your estate vulnerable to post-mortem identity theft, if fraudsters decide to apply for credit cards in your name while nobody’s watching your accounts.
What’s more, a library of digital music or an Internet domain name that you own may have financial value that’s significant to your estate. The domain name HotelsGuide.com, for example, recently sold for $60,000, according to domain-name marketplace Sedo. “We shouldn’t dismiss our digital assets as insignificant or unimportant,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of Your Digital Afterlife (New Riders, $25). “The things that may seem ephemeral to us are very valuable to heirs once we’re gone.”
The value of these assets can go far beyond the financial worth in the wake of a loved one’s death. After her brother died in 2011, Melinda Miller quickly had his Facebook account “memorialized,” meaning friends can still post messages on his page, but no one can log in to the account. “That first six months, I didn’t know if my parents were going to recover” from the loss, says Miller, 41, an elementary school principal in Springfield, Mo. But as friends have continued to post photos, songs and holiday greetings on her brother’s page, “it’s very comforting to the family to see the messages continue,” she says. “It’s like a memory wall.”
The first step for seniors starting to navigate this new world of digital estate planning is to recognize the obstacles they face. Each online service provider has its own terms of service—the legal mumbo-jumbo you click through when you open your account—and those terms often say that you can’t transfer your account or hand off your password to anyone else. Those restrictions pose a challenge for heirs who might want to access your e-mail account, for example, to retrieve bills and other documents.
Providers differ on how they handle the accounts of deceased users, but some are starting to help users plan their digital afterlife. The Yahoo terms of service, for example, say that “any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death,” and accounts may be deleted if a death certificate is submitted. Google in April introduced a new feature allowing users to specify that after a certain period of inactivity their account data should be deleted or passed along to specific individuals. At Facebook, relatives may be able to request the contents of the account—a lengthy process involving a court order—or ask that the page be deleted.
Federal laws present another hurdle. If you use your late mother’s password to log on to her account, you may violate not only the provider’s terms of service but also the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which governs certain unauthorized access to computers. And a federal privacy law, the Stored Communications Act, can limit providers’ ability to share deceased users’ account contents with relatives.
A handful of states, meanwhile, have passed laws attempting to clarify executors’ power to manage a deceased person’s digital assets. But given the variations in the state laws, federal laws and technology companies’ terms of service, some legal experts say such legislation has done little to remedy the confusion. “It is a very unsettled area” of law, says Gerry Beyer, law professor at Texas Tech University. The Uniform Law Commission, which helps standardize state laws across the U.S. by drafting model legislation, currently has a committee working on the issue.
Some accounts that you access online don’t pose much of an estate-planning challenge. Because financial institutions have clear procedures for handling an account holder’s death, it’s relatively straightforward for executors to arrange for the transfer of assets to beneficiaries, estate planners say.
Protecting Your Digital Afterlife
Although many other online accounts remain in a legal fog, seniors who take a few simple steps now can greatly increase the odds that their online afterlife will be handled according to their wishes.
First, take inventory of all your online accounts, including e-mail, social networks, blogging sites, photo-sharing sites, frequent-flier accounts, shopping sites such as Amazon.com, credit card accounts, and online bill-payment accounts, such as those established with utilities. For each account, list log-in and password information as well as answers to “secret” questions.
The security of such a list is a critical question. One solution: Use a password-management system such as LastPass.com or 1Password (www.agilebits.com). These services will encrypt your log-in and password information and keep it stored on your own computer. You’ll have a master password to unlock the data, so it’s easy to retrieve and update password information. Another option: Save the list in a password-protected document on your computer. Don’t put any password information in your will, which becomes a public document.
When you’ve completed your inventory, write down where you’ve stored the information and the master password needed to access it. Put that information in your safe deposit box or in your attorney’s vault. Seniors creating a power of attorney document should also include specific language authorizing their agents to deal with their digital assets, Beyer says.
Next, consider signing a statement, which can be drafted by an estate-planning lawyer, authorizing the companies that hold your online information to disclose that information to your executor or other representative, says James Lamm, estate-planning attorney at Gray Plant Mooty, in Minneapolis. The authorization may be included in your will. That way, your executor can request a copy of the contents of your online accounts, rather than trying to access the account directly—and possibly running afoul of the terms of service or federal law, Lamm says. “That should work, but I can’t guarantee it,” he says. “That’s as good as we can get under current law.”
Seniors may be able to avoid sticky legal questions by downloading their online account information to a home computer. Some tech companies are making this process easier. Facebook, for example, allows users to get a copy of all of their correspondence with friends, photos and other account content in a single download. A service called Backupify (www.backupify.com) will also help download content from Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and other personal accounts.
A cottage industry of online data-management companies has begun selling services that claim to transfer your digital assets to your beneficiaries. One such service is offered by SecureSafe, launched in 2009 by Zurich-based online storage company DSwiss. It has already signed up more than 300,000 individuals and is adding roughly 10,000 new customers a week, says spokesman Andreas Jacob. But legal experts say such services don’t resolve the potential conflicts with online providers’ terms of service or federal laws. SecureSafe’s terms of service say that users must comply with the laws of their own country, Jacob says.
Even when family members have shared all their passwords with each other, managing online accounts can be difficult. Karen Marcus, 39, of Richmond, Va., had all of her husband’s passwords when he died in 2010, but she didn’t have all of the log-in IDs he used for online bill payments. She tried to convert the online bills back to paper statements, which wasn’t an easy process. Her electricity was turned off, she says, after the power company was slow to send her the paper bill that she had requested. But when dealing with such a loss, she says, “you don’t know what day it is, what time it is. And you want to make things as simple, as tactile, as possible.”