Creating an Effective Digital Estate Plan

Creating an Effective Digital Estate Plan

The term “estate planning” generally includes documents such as a Last Will & Testament, financial power of attorney, health care power of attorney and maybe a trust. However, to address the growing online presence of individuals from young to old, estate planning has grown to include planning of an individual’s digital assets on their death or disability as well. In fact, recent articles suggest that the average user possesses upwards of 90 online accounts. What exactly happens to those accounts when your clients die?

Many people assume that an executor or a family member will gain access to the accounts, but for many states, that is not currently the case. The laws in most states do not grant an executor or family member access to online accounts at the time the owner passes away. The Model Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) was drafted to provide states with consistent rules and procedures for accessing digital information, however, many digital access providers have vigorously fought to stop states from passing legislation similar to the UFADAA. In an effort to take a step forward, some states have passed slimmed down legislation to allow limited access to certain accounts, such as email. In addition to state laws, each individual digital access provider has their own rules and requirements for gaining access to personal information.

Because access to digital accounts following the death of a family member can be daunting, it is important that clients implement an effective digital estate plan. The principles which guide traditional estate planning are also applicable to digital estate planning. Keeping important documents updated and in a place where family members and/or an executor can access the information is especially important with digital accounts. Most people have a myriad of email addresses, passwords, pin numbers, reset questions, thumbprints, secret knocks and code phrases that grant us access to our accounts. However, how many of those access keys are accessible by a family member and/or executor?

There are currently four methods to transfer access upon death: written instructions, access through specific digital providers, password managers and digital legacy services.

Written Instructions

Many digital users record their passwords and access information and store the instructions in a secure place, such as a personal safe or safe deposit box. If the information is updated regularly and stored in a safe location, this can be the cheapest and simplest method to transfer access to a surviving family member or executor. However, because passwords and other login information change regularly, it is important that the written instructions be updated regularly as well. The necessary upkeep of recording and storing this information can require a significant time investment.

Digital Providers

Many digital account providers are beginning to provide solutions to this issue. For example, Facebook now allows users to designate a profile executor who can access the account upon the death of the account creator. Twitter allows the person authorized to act on behalf of the deceased person to request an account to be deactivated. Email providers, like Google and Yahoo, will consider granting access to an account (or certain limited information) by the authorized person following a review of a written request, and a Gmail user can designate an Inactive Account Manager who may access certain information if the account is inactive for a designated period. While these individual solutions are helpful, it is difficult to prepare each account to be accessed by a surviving family member or executor, since each provider has different rules.

Password Managers

Third party password managers, like LastPass, KeePass and Dashlane, all provide methods to send access information to certain designated individuals on the death of the user. Generally, all password managers have the ability to share stored information with others; however, some password managers provide springing access. For example, LastPass allows users to choose one or more accounts to which they want to grant access and send an advance email to any individual. The email contains a link, which once activated, begins a countdown clock. During the designated timeframe, the original sender has the ability to reject access. In the event that the original sender does…

McBride: Digital estate planning

McBride: Digital estate planning

What happens to your digital property when you die? This can be a very challenging issue for your executor when settling your estate.

You can make your executor’s job easier by listing all the electronic devices and online services that you use. With a letter of direction, you can tell your executor what should happen to them after you die.


Use an address book or worksheet to alphabetically list your devices and online accounts. Then tell your executor where to find your list. User names and passwords on your inventory list are the keys to open the doors to your electronic devices and keep online accounts active.

Remember that Canada’s privacy laws make it difficult for your executor to take over the online accounts of another person. When you sign up for an online account, the terms of service agreement restricts access to the account-holder only. That means you cannot bequeath your social media account, video game account, or gambling account to a beneficiary even if they have great value.

In the U.S., many states have created laws to give an executor the right to access and manage digital assets of a dead person. No similar laws have been enacted in Canada yet. Until our laws are updated and service providers change their policies, Canadians can include clauses in their wills that give executors permission to deal with digital assets.


Your executor can browse your email messages to track down estate assets. Email messages give clues about bills to be paid. Email reminders to download T5 and T4RIF slips can lead to financial accounts. Your emails will reveal confirmations of business, gaming, streaming and shopping transactions.

Online business

Maybe you have YouTube videos or a blog that generates advertising revenue. If you are receiving thousands of dollars per month in payments from ad clicks, your executor would want to maintain that revenue stream.

Do you own a valuable domain name? Remind your executor to pay the fee to renew the registration until the domain name is sold.

Electronic devices

Your executor should find all your electronic hardware such as smartphones, tablets or laptop computers. Keep these devices and safeguard them until data can be extracted. Once all online accounts have been closed or transferred, electronic devices can be stripped and passed along with other estate assets.

Social media

After you have died, your executor can access and delete your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts by knowing your passwords. What if the family wants continued access to their loved one’s online photos and personal messages? Social media websites will eventually take steps to protect privacy as a standard security procedure.

Facebook allows family members to either delete or “memorialize” the accounts of a deceased user. In a memorialized account, a person’s existing friends network can leave comments and photos but nobody has permission to log in or edit the account.

Music, e-books and photos

Who gets your collection of digital photos and videos in online cloud storage and social media sites after you die? Some digital assets cannot be legally bequeathed to anyone. You pay for a personal licence to use digital files, such as iTunes music and e-books. These personal rights expire when the user dies.

Even if you bequeath your iPad to a family member, you cannot bequeath the apps you have purchased and installed on your iPad.

Identity theft

Thieves can use a dead person’s information to create a fake identity to rack up credit card charges and apply for loans. Your executor can safeguard the estate by notifying credit agencies of the death.

Terry McBride, a member of Advocis, works with Raymond James Ltd. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Raymond James Ltd. Information is from sources believed reliable but cannot be guaranteed. This is provided for information only. We recommend that clients seek independent advice from a professional adviser on tax-related matters. Securities offered through Raymond James Ltd., member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund. Insurance services offered through Raymond James Financial Planning Ltd., not a member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund.

Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Digital Estate Planning in One Day

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

Online/Social Media

  • Your blog or website
  • Email
  • 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
  • Voicemail

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.

Digital Estate Plan

Digital Estate Plan


If you are using older estate planning tools, there could be a section missing. Does anyone know about items you have in “cloud” storage? Would they know how to close your Facebook or Twitter accounts? Would they know to contact a business to stop automatic withdrawals for subscriptions or utility payments?

Here’s a list to get you thinking about items to include in your personal inventory under the category: Electronic

  • Your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media accounts.
  • Blogs and websites you own.
  • Bank, brokerage, retirement plan, credit card, loan, and insurance accounts that you access online.
  • Your email accounts.
  • Online retail accounts and apps from stores: eBay, Amazon, iTunes etc..
  • Photo- or video-sharing sites like Flickr or YouTube.
  • PayPal or other online payment accounts.
  • Utility bills you pay online.
  • Any other online accounts such as ones from airline sites with your frequent flier miles and document and data storage accounts like Google Docs.

Keep the list in a secure location with the passwords in a different spot, perhaps use a secure password app. Find someone you trust and share the location of the information, then update the list when you make changes. It’s also a good idea to visit the sites when you have time to review their inactivity policies. Some companies are catching up to this reality of a deceased client and are asking you to set up steps they should follow if your account is not used for a set period of time.

Dead Facebook Users will Outnumber the Living by 2098

Digital estate planning – choice

We’re rapidly accumulating digital assets as we build extensive collections of photos, social media posts, cloud files, websites, lists of passwords and logins, music and movie collections, ebooks … and the list goes on. But who will own your digital heritage when you die? And can you bequeath your iTunes library to your kids? In this article: Do you own your ebooks and digital music files? Creating a personal register Creating a social media archive Creating an online digital archive Online memorialisation

after you’re gone Do you need a digital executor? Tips for managing your digital legacy Is a DIY will good enough to secure your family’s future after you’re gone?

Find out in our will kit reviews. Do you ‘own’ your ebooks and digital music files? You may be shocked to learn that you don’t ‘own’ the music, movies and ebooks that you’ve bought online in the same way as you own physical books and other media. When you buy a movie or music file, you’re actually buying a license to ‘use’ the content – and it’s for your own use only.

What this means is that you can’t bequeath your music or movie collection to loved ones in your will by transferring the ownership of the files from your ID to theirs. Creating a personal register If you want to save loved ones the worry of losing your precious digital life at a time when they’re dealing with all the immediate issues when someone passes away, some pre-planning of your digital legacy can really help them out. To start getting a sense of your digital resources, you’ll need to create a register. It’s basically a list of everything you can think of that comes under the banner of ‘digital’, organised into relevant categories. The National and State Libraries Australasia has advice on this.

Logins and passwords Write down the website address along with login and password details for all your online accounts. This will include email, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, blogs and other financial sites, government services, shopping sites, phone and internet accounts, as well as the multitude of other sites you use at any time. Note that banks forbid recording your PIN unless it’s adequately disguised. Check the terms and conditions on your bank’s website for specific details for your account.

If you’ve recorded this information on paper, put the document in a home safe or other secure place. If you’re going to store the details on your computer, use encryption to protect the document and always run up-to-date security software to protect your files. Purchased music, movies and ebooks Next step is to list all of your purchased music, movies, ebooks, digital newspaper and magazine subscriptions including the platforms such as iTunes or Google Play store with login ID and passwords. This will let you (and your loved ones) see what you’ve got in the way of digital entertainment, but you probably can’t just gift them in a will. Personal photos and videos Many people have gigabytes of digital photos and videos and they can be spread across Flickr, iCloud, Picassa and Google Photos to name just a few. Then there are likely to be lots of files stored on your home computer or storage drive. It’s worth having multiple copies of precious photos on DVD or a store drive and cloud storage.

List the platforms where photos and videos are located as well as login details so your family can find and download files. Cloud storage Evernote, DropBox, Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive – there are host of cloud storage services where you can have files and other documents stored. You might want to do a bit of housekeeping and clean out any old or unwanted files and then outline what’s stored in any cloud storage platform, what’s important and what’s not worth keeping. Once again, be sure that you note the website link and include login and password details for all sites. Social media posts If you’re an avid user of social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, then you’ll likely have a rather large amount of posts, photos and tweets and other contributions. This virtual life is in its own way a slice of your life and something worth keeping and remembering.

Some sites such as Facebook let you pre-decide to have your account memorialised (retained but locked from changes) or deleted when you pass away. Note the URL, login and password for these sites if you want them managed on your behalf. Save your virtual life with a social media archive If you’re curious about what your profile looks like, then you can create your own archive on some sites such as Facebook. Facebook Archive is a downloadable record of your account to save all the photos, comments and status updates that you’ve shared.

Facebook Memorialisation will automatically lock the profile when Facebook has been notified that someone is deceased, but the site won’t provide login information even after death. Accounts can also be deleted. Twitter Archive will download your entire history of tweets and retweets so you can store it for posterity. Google Takeout is a way to archive your information from a range of services including Drive, Photos, Mail and Profile. Accounts can also be deleted.

See google. com/takeout. YouTube Archive will download and save all video uploads in their original file type. What about an online digital archive? There are keepsake and storage sites such as YourDigitalFile and LifeMaps that will chronicle your life, and MyVault that offers secure storage. They have individual security provisions, but most allow you and a nominated person to access the information if you’re incapacitated.

You should need to prove your identity and the identity of any nominees with the 100-point security check and it should use strong encryption to protect logins and passwords. We haven’t tried any of these sites so we can’t recommend them, but we advise you to check their security as well as pricing for ongoing storage. In particular, before you sign up for any secure storage service, read through its privacy statement and contact the site if you need further clarification on how they secure your previous personal information. See the CHOICE wireless routers review to safely secure your home network. Online memorialisation Many funeral homes are now establishing an online memorial for loved ones. It’s a place to leave and share thoughts and photos about somebody who’s passed away.

These sites can be useful for relatives and friends a distance away who didn’t attend the funeral but still want to pay their respect. Heaven Address is a site used by many funeral homes in Australia, while sites like MemorialMatters, Imorial and MuchLoved let you create a public memorial for a loved one or even a public figure or celebrity that you want to remember. And if you want to ease loved ones’ suffering after you’re gone, you can make messages to be sent posthumously – a bit like a letter or video message to be read or viewed after you’ve departed. Sites such as MyGoodbyeMessage will send pre-prepared notes, emails, videos and other messages to friends and family. Do you need a digital executor?

A traditional executor is responsible for your will, but it may be worth nominating someone as a digital executor to help manage your digital affairs (although this isn’t a legally recognised role). When planning your estate, consider putting an e-register with your official will. Agencies such as the State Trustees of Victoria recommend this to help loved ones manage your accounts. The State Trustees site has further advice on estate planning.

Privacy can potentially be an issue when accessing and managing or controlling someone else’s accounts. It could involve dealing with emails, files and other documents that relate to other people. While privacy laws don’t apply to deceased people, documents or anything referred to living people are still legally subject to privacy laws. There are commonwealth privacy laws as well as individual state and territory privacy laws. Tips for managing your digital legacy Transferring ownership of digital assets isn’t as straightforward as physical assets such as property. Ownership of digital media such as music and ebooks will depend on the terms of use for the service.

Transferring IDs on digital devices such as iPads may require a death certificate and application to the manufacturer. Some online services allow access by authorised agents while others require a death certificate for someone else to access and/or close the account. Check the privacy and security criteria before signing up for any online document storage services. To get help with the best way to preserve your digital legacy, Digital Beyond has helpful articles on many aspect of digital estate planning, and Digital Heritage has a wealth of information on managing your digital legacy. The ACCAN has a paper on digital heritage for consumers.