Online Life After Death – Digital Asset Estate Planning

Online Life After Death – Digital Asset Estate Planning

Most of us have a significant presence in the digital world whether we realize it or not.

If you were to list all your digital accounts and assets, the number would probably surprise you. You may have online accounts with banks, merchants, a brokerage firm, social media platforms, cloud storage companies, gaming sites and email providers. Perhaps you have a blog or own a number of domain names. Some items such as your digital photo collection or your Facebook log may not have a monetary value, but they may have personal meaning for your loved ones. Other items may range in value from coupon credits accrued with your favorite online retailer to a significant balance in a PayPal or even Bitcoin account. You may have thousands of frequent flyer miles, a cash-back reward balance from your credit card company, or an online trading account balance. Your online business presence may include eBay, Etsy or your own web-based company.

Whatever monetary or personal value these types of examples may possess, digital asset estate planning is essential to ensure that your online life after death is handled in an orderly manner according to your wishes.

In addition to online accounts and assets, your personal digital devices and their content should be considered as well.

Your computer or laptop as well as your tablet, e-reader, cellphone or smartphone and all manner of offline storage form part of your digital estate. These storage formats include CDs and DVDs, peripheral storage drives, and memory cards. Tangible paper records are becoming increasingly a thing of the past; for most of us, it is the digital trail we leave that tells the story of our personal, professional and financial lives.

The conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, an icon of 20th-century classical music, passed away in 1990 and left behind a memoir called Blue Ink in a password-protected computer file. He did not share the password, and so far, no one has been able to access this presumably significant work. Clarifying your wishes regarding your digital legacy is crucial to any well-formulated estate plan. You can start by providing your executor a complete digital inventory together with the necessary means of accessing it.

Digital Assets – A New Frontier

There’s more to consider, however. From a legal perspective, the status of digital assets within estate planning is a new frontier. They may fall within intellectual property, intangible assets or license categories.    While it may seem reasonable to assume that a next-of-kin could simply step in and manage or dispose of digital accounts, this is a risky endeavor. Federal and state laws designed to prevent hacking, identity theft and online fraud can inadvertently prevent loved ones or your executor from legally accessing your digital assets if you die. Many sites and account issuers allow only the primary account holder to enjoy access and can be inflexible on that point.

In Ellsworth vs. Yahoo, a 2005 legal case out of Michigan, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq was forced to seek access through the courts to his son’s Yahoo email account after Yahoo initially refused to provide it. Yahoo eventually complied with an order to produce the email records.

While the need for a court order is extreme, some platforms such as Gmail, Flickr and Twitter request a death certificate and related documents to gain access to accounts and records. Some states such as Oklahoma and Connecticut have introduced statutes designed to provide access to the deceased person’s email and social networking accounts, but comprehensive digital asset protection and disposition after death remains a complicated matter best discussed with your estate attorney.

As stated, the goal will be to identify a complete inventory, directions for access and any information necessary for your digital assets to be valued accurately. You may prefer that some records be destroyed and the accounts closed upon your death while others be willed to specific individuals. You may wish to bequeath your laptop to one person but prefer the contents be destroyed or given to a different heir. The importance of specifying your exact wishes is not to be underestimated. Our digital lives have grown and will continue to grow exponentially, and the peace of mind that estate planning affords will remain elusive until you include your digital assets in this important endeavor.

Death, Data and the Digital Hereafter

The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz

The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz

A soon-to-be-released science fiction movie, Transcendence, features Johnny Depp as a scientist who becomes immortalised as a digital entity – an event that is referred to by many as the Singularity. This is still rather far from reality, of course, but it did get me thinking about death and what happens to ‘our’ data – all those Facebook chats, Instagram photos and so on. I’m talking about the digital hereafter.

Your digital persona

It was around the turn of the millennium when I first started using the internet seriously (by which I mean how much time and energy I spent on the internet, not what I used it for). Back then, I spent my time online divided between MySpace, and plenty of forums. I certainly wasn’t thinking about a data backlog, or what would happen when I die. But as more and more of my life moved online, this has come to my attention as something not too many people think about. I don’t actually know, but I would guess that I have a profile at well over 200 websites, including social media sites, forums, retail and financial services, and any number of arbitrary web-apps that required me to sign up to use them just once.

My point is, as the internet has grown we have strewn our personal data far and wide across numerous websites, with little further thought for that data, sequestered in servers across the world. And in so doing, we have created a kind of avatar – a nebulous collection of data points in the cloud, that together makes up an online persona.

Your data after you die

Google, Facebook, and Twitter all have strategies to deal with accounts of the deceased – Facebook will ‘memorialise’ a profile if a family member can confirm the death of that person. This turns the profile of the deceased into a public memorial page, which won’t show status updates but still allows loved ones to post messages. Twitter just locks your information down, while Google has what they call the Inactive Account Manager – after a defined period of inactivity, Google will  transfer your data to a trusted contact and/or shut down your account. In general, it seems that the data will be made available to loved ones (or the courts) if absolutely necessary. Several companies have positioned themselves as managers of you digital legacy – covered in this blogpost. For a more in-depth discussion of digital estate planning, see this NY Times article published last year.

Now for some more outlandish options for the digital afterlife. Several companies have caught on to this opportunity, and are offering to immortalise your digital persona for posterity. Eterni.me promises to create a digital version of the deceased, which will continue to post status updates and send messages. The company will parse your data to create an virtual ‘you’ based on your likes, browsing history and previous social media messages. LivesOn is another such project, which promises to keep tweeting for you after you die. With taglines like ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting. Welcome to your social afterlife.’ (LivesOn) or the frankly misleading ‘Simply Become Immortal’ (Eterni.me), these services are not for everybody. Personally, I find the idea of a dead loved one tweeting something inane rather distasteful, and I would be downright upset if a digital ghost started messaging me about the good times we had back when they were alive.

Corporates aren’t the only ones thinking quite seriously about this stuff – there is a website, The Digital Beyond, which has been started to discuss and document these issues. The owners of the site have also written a bookdiscussing one’s options for curating the digital remains of a loved one. Academia is getting in on the act, too:researchers in the UK are studying how Western public mourning practices are changing. They document massive growth in online mourning rituals, such as the aforementioned memorial pages on Facebook, blogs dedicated to the memory of loved ones, and so on.

Another way of dealing with digital remains

I would like to consider another aspect of this discussion, one which I have not seen discussed much: the value of that data as a public resource. Data has become the unofficial second currency of business in the 21st century – just look at mobile developers. They run at a loss for years, until someone will buy their captive audience from them as data for the great online advertising machine. As it stands, the digital remnants of a life belong to the company that owned that data to begin with. But I have a alternative suggestion, which would be massively useful if implemented correctly. What if, after a reasonable mourning period (call it five years to be safe), all of that data was parsed, anonymised, and made publicly available, for free? Think of the wealth of data that would represent, over the next few decades, or even centuries. Big Data is an overhyped topic right now, but we are already seeing it’s mark across the world. Think of the complex modelling and forecasting that would be possible. Think of the boost to academia, industry, commerce, financial services and even sport. And applied to humanitarian work in health or the environment, it would quite literally change the world.