Do you need a social media will?

Do you need a social media will?

Social media users are being urged to appoint a digital executor to make sure their wishes for their accounts are respected after death.

Many people do their banking, insurance and other financial business online, as well as engage on social media platforms, without giving much thought to legal protocols.

Social media
Social media

Director of Operations at the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network Narelle Clark told Nine to Noon people are increasingly storing their personal and financial information online.

They often don’t read the fine print and have no idea what will happen to their digital footprint if they die.

Ms Clark is hosting a forum set up by Internet New Zealand in Wellington on Thursday, which will feature experts discussing the types of steps people can take to protect their digital legacy.

“What you should do is sit down and, alongside your normal will, think up all of the things you want to do with your digital footprint,” she said.

“All of this stuff that you’re accumulating online, particularly if it’s got monetary value – I can’t stress that enough, if it’s got monetary value – make sure that your designated heirs can get access to all this after you move on.”

Some people want their Facebook accounts to remain open after they die so people can visit their page and remember them. Photo: 123RF

Facebook now allows members to set up a legacy contact, allowing its user to nominate someone who will decide whether their page is shut down, or kept online as a memorial page to the deceased.

“You can also download the entire contents offline so that your family can remember your photos and so forth offline, if they want to sort through them offline rather than online, but people often find having some online presence – especially if that’s how they interacted with you – can be comforting.

“People wanted to leave it there because they can go to that person’s Facebook page and remember them and be comforted by the memories and times they had fun together, when they visited the Louvre together or Eiffel Tower or whatever they did.”

Google, meanwhile, might not hand over access to family members without a court order, to protect the privacy of people who had been in correspondence with the email account holder. However, you can also set up an inactive account manager, who might be notified if your account hasn’t been used in some time.

Twitter reserves the right to keep high-profile accounts active after the death of the original owner, with the possibility that the account might use artificial intelligence to continue tweeting.

“If Twitter decides, arguably, your account is making them a lot of money because they like advertising they could well decide not to shut it down.

“And there is now such a thing as an avatar, that can live on and tweet in your name using artificial intelligence to look at all the tweets you used to tweet.”

New Zealand Law Society has a checklist online, about what questions you should ask yourself about what you want to happen with your digital legacy after you die, and information about what different social media providers require to store, disclose or remove your content.

Planning Process

Planning Process

Although there is no national legal consensus to guide digital estate planning, you can still develop an effective plan in consultation with your attorney. At the very highest level, this process involves the following steps: Completing a digital asset inventory, identifying a digital executor and consulting with an attorney, providing access to your digital assets, providing instructions, and granting authority.

A plan implies an architect, by Sarah Ross photography, CC BY NC 2.0
A plan implies an architect/
Step 1: Complete a digital asset inventory to identify your digital assets

What to include: Examples of items to include are:

    • Hardware: For example, flash drives, US bard drives, digital cameras, backup CDs/DVDs, Computers, iPads, iPods, and other devices.
    • Networking: Router information, wireless network names and passwords
    • Software: For example, financial programs such as Quicken or online software subscription accounts, such as to Adobe Cloud
    • File structures: Information to indicate how and where files are organized on your computers and other storage devices
    • Social networking, social analytics, social curation, sharing, and online reputation management: For example, Facebook, Twitter, HootSuite, Buffer, Pinterest, Scoop.It, Paper.Li Klout, Kred
    • Professional networking: For example, LinkedIn, Plaxo, BizNik
    • Photo sharing and video: For example, Flickr, SmugMug, Shutterfly, Instagram, Vimeo, YouTube, Vine
    • Music streaming and sharing: For example, Spotify and Pandora
    • Media and online entertainment/apps stores: For example, Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, or Windows App store
    • Online presence/personal branding: For example, any websites and associated webmaster/analytics accounts, blogs, online commerce sites (if you run an online business). For example, WordPress, Blogger, Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, About.Me
    • Online backup/file storage: For example, Skydrive, Dropbox, Wikispaces, Box.Net, and Google Drive.
    • Online merchants: For example, Amazon, ebay, iTunes, Nordstrom, Starbucks, or Netflix. Also, any digital subscriptions to local or national newspapers or online magazines.
    • Online gaming/virtual worlds: World of Warcraft, Second Life, XBox
    • Financial planning accounts: This includes banking, retirement, investment, credit card, loan, and insurance accounts that are accessed online.
    • Email accounts
    • Student and library accounts
    • Utility bill accounts that are paid online
    • Travel-related accounts: These could include frequent flyer mileage accounts, and travel planning accounts such as TripIt, as well as travel loyalty/rewards programs such as Hilton Honors.

If you plan to store this information online, companies such as Legacy Locker and SecureSafe provide services for this purpose. For a list of companies and the services that they provide, see The Digital Beyond website’s helpful listing and pages 10 and 11 in Estate Planning in the Digital Age by law professor Gerry Bayer.

Important: Be aware that although online services are helpful as repositories for digital asset information and instructions, it is critical to consult an attorney to ensure that you transfer assets in a legal manner. As Gerry Bayer and Naomi Cahn state:

Clients may have signed up with an on-line asset management company and so be hesitant to address these assets in the estate planning process. Clients may believe the companies’ claims that they will be able to distribute digital assets to beneficiaries or to destroy assets that the client wishes to discontinue on her death. Clients need to understand that the legality of these actions is doubtful. Although these companies can be used to store information, other estate planning methods should be used to transfer assets.

For more information, see When You Pass on, Don’t Leave the Passwords Behind.

Step 2: Identify your digital executor and consult with an attorney

Choosing your digital executor: Your digital executor will carry out your end-of-life wishes for your digital estate. You may want to choose the same executor for your digital and physical assets, choose a different executor for your digital assets, or choose multiple individuals to perform the different tasks required to administer your digital estate. Whichever approach you choose, keep in mind that accessing online accounts and carrying out specific actions such as deleting an account or archiving information, requires technical knowledge and skill. Choose someone who has sufficient experience, is technically proficient, and adept at solving problems should they arise. That person should also be impartial so that they can carry out wishes that may be difficult for less impartial individuals (such as deleting accounts that you want deleted that certain family members may not want to delete for sentimental reasons).

It is important that your digital executor comply with applicable state and federal statutes and Internet service providers’ terms of service agreements. For example, depending on the terms of service of the email provider, if your digital executor accesses your email account without the email provider’s knowledge, that action could violate the providers’ terms of service and constitute identity fraud. Preventing such issues is one reason why it is critical to choose a skilled attorney.

Choosing your attorney: If you already have an estate planning attorney who is also experienced with digital estate planning, this is ideal. If you need help finding an attorney, a reputable bar association-sponsored lawyer referral service may be one option. For information, see the American Bar Association Consumers’ Guide to Legal Help. A high-quality directory of rated lawyers such as Avvo is another option.

Step 3: Provide access to your digital assets

If you have not already done so as part of Step 1, for each digital asset, note the information required to access it. For example, note the name and type of digital asset, and where applicable, the site URL, the user name that you use to sign in/log in to the account, your password, and any answers to secret questions, if required for account logins. If you used an online service when you completed your initial digital asset inventory, you may have entered this information as part of that process.

Step 4: Provide instructions on how to administer your digital assets

Instructions may include:

  • Notifying Facebook friends, Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, and blog readers that you have passed away or are incapacitated.
  • Deactivating/closing social media profiles, or memorializing them. For example, Facebook and Google both provide ways for appropriate designated individuals to take specific actions as follows:
    • Facebook: Facebook provides an option to memorialize a deceased person’s profile. If you choose this option, this allows for friends to share their memories on your timeline and view content that you choose to share after you pass away or have become incapacitated. It also ensure that your memorialized timeline doesn’t appear in People You May know and other suggestions.
    • Google: In April this year, Google released Inactive Account Manager, which lets you share specific parts of your account data or notify one or more trusted contacts if your account has been inactive for a minimum of three months. The contact will be notified via email and if you choose to share your data, they will be provided with links to download your data, after their identify is verified.
  • Bequeathing information that you may want to be made available to specific people.
  • Closing or continuing websites: Designating someone to maintain or close your blog and perhaps archive important information, if allowable under the Internet service provider’s terms of service.
  • Specifying information that should not be deleted, such as valuable creative works completed or in progress, personally important photos, videos, or other content.
  • Posting a final online message that can be shared with your friends, family, and colleagues (an example of a moving final message is here). For example, you may want a photo album posted or a video. A growing number of online services and applications, such as ifidie, Recollect, and Bcelebrated, provide different ways to create an online legacy.
Step 5: Grant your digital executor(s) authority to administer your digital estate

This step is crucial and where you will want to work closely with your attorney, to ensure that your digital executor is legally authorized to carry out your digital estate planning wishes and he or she does not run afoul of applicable statutes, laws, and terms of service agreements.

Who will get your iTunes when you die?

An electronic immortality

Human fascination with immortality stretches back to the time of Greek mythology with history littered by charlatans, oddballs and megalomaniacs either claiming or seeking the secret to eternal life.

However, the modern tech-savvy generation has discovered, quite by chance, that an immortality of sorts is now freely available via the digital footprint they leave should they meet an untimely end.  It’s estimated that on Facebook alone, more than 30 million accounts belong to people who are deceased.

As if the pain of coping with the death of a loved one isn’t difficult enough, friends and family must now consider the implications of the deceased’s online life to go with their material existence.

Your online footprint
Think for a moment about your own digital presence.  You’ll almost certainly use online banking and shopping facilities, perhaps an online wallet like PayPal, email accounts, a frequent flyer program, a social media presence via Facebook or Twitter, along with potentially thousands of personal files, receipts and photographs.

Most people already understand the importance of estate planning to help pass on worldly goods such as housing, savings and mementos to their beneficiaries.  But how will your heirs even gain access to your computer and your passwords?

Like so many laws relating to the digital world, many are outdated or irrelevant, and several online services have already established their own policies.  For instance, Twitter allows family or friends to download a copy of your public tweets and close your account.  You need to nominate someone in advance to provide their name and contact details, their relationship to you, your Twitter username and a link to or copy of your obituary.

Digital executors
No laws currently exist in Australia to grant a Will’s executor automatic access to someone’s social media accounts.  However, there are still several options available to help decide on how your online legacy is managed.

The first step is to create a Digital Will.  In addition, you will need to select a trustworthy digital executor to handle arrangements for your digital assets and digital legacy once you are gone.  Similarly, if you run your own business, it will have its own digital incarnation and its own digital legacy to maintain.  Some Australian Will makers offer Digital Wills so people can ensure their online legacy lives on – or fades away – in accordance with their wishes.

Online vaults for safe storage
An increasingly popular alternative is to store important documents and passwords in an online vault.  The likes of SecureSafe, Legacy Lockboxor Assets in Order pledge to provide secure online storage of passwords and documents.

Password management accounts can be set up using software such as Norton Identity Safe while Google recently introduced a new program called Inactive Account Manager, which enables you to choose in advance exactly what you wish to have done with all your Google data – from Gmail accounts to YouTube videos.

Considering how much of our communication takes place online these days, it’s worth investing some time thinking about your digital footprint and what is required to manage it when you’re gone.  A good time to do this might be when next reviewing your Wills and Powers of Attorney.  With a little thought and preparation, you can leave a lasting legacy to your loved ones, well beyond photos or videos, and avoid complications associated with your ‘digital immortality’.