Make Sure You Know Who Will Inherit Your Twitter Account

Make Sure You Know Who Will Inherit Your Twitter Account

People draft estate plans that carefully detail how their money and property should pass to their heirs after they become incapacitated or die.

But what about our so-called digital assets, such as an iTunes account containing thousands of songs, or a Twitter account with hundreds of followers? Can people pass those on as well? And how do they ensure that heirs get access to password-protected bank and trading accounts that exist only online?

Questions like these are popping up with more frequency—and for good reason. A popular blog or Web domain, for example, can have great, or potential, value as a business. But if the owner doesn’t take the proper legal steps ahead of time, their heirs may lose the rights to those assets. Photos, videos, email and contents of social-media accounts also may be lost.

Make a List

Justin T. Miller, national wealth strategist in the San Francisco office of BNY Mellon Wealth Management, a division of Bank of New York Mellon Corp. , says that clients often react with surprise when advisers ask about their plans for passing on things like online financial and social-media accounts. Even the technology executives he counsels, Mr. Miller says, have given little thought to how to provide their heirs with access to some of their online assets.

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Katherine Dean, managing director of wealth planning for Wells Fargo Private Bank, San Francisco, says one couple worth around $20 million seemed abashed when she asked them to detail their digital assets in making a comprehensive financial and estate plan. She gave them a one-page checklist seeking information about such assets as photo and social-media accounts, Web-based games, and online-only banking and brokerage accounts.

“They said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to go online to get this,’ ” says Ms. Dean. “Whenever we hear that, we take the time to have the conversation that this is very important.”

The most important thing, estate attorneys say, is to establish procedures for protecting and granting access to passwords and for transferring assets and account ownership. The rules can vary widely depending on the vendor. While there is nothing in Twitter’s company rules and conditions that says one of its accounts must close if the owner dies, Apple Inc. ‘s iTunes says it doesn’t have a policy that allows anyone to will or inherit an iTunes account.

But even where limits exist, by placing the license and necessary passwords in a trust, access to such accounts can be preserved, says Naomi R. Cahn, a professor at George Washington University Law School.

Ms. Cahn explains: Many digital assets are owned through a license that is limited to the account-holder and nontransferable. The license may cease to exist when the account-holder dies, so it can’t be transferred in a will. But by placing the license in a trust, it is possible that the license will survive the death of its creator.

Wills play an important role, too, Ms. Cahn says, mainly in stating who should receive any digital property that is capable of being inherited. A will can also designate who will have access to digital accounts, although this may not be legally binding.

Estate advisers caution against listing digital assets and passwords in a will because the will can become public. Such information instead should go into a separate letter, says Lesley Moss, an attorney at law firm Oram & Moss in Chevy Chase, Md.

Looking for Legislation

A group of states is interested in drafting a law that would make it easier for consumers to bequeath online property by giving fiduciaries the right to manage and distribute their clients’ digital assets.

Lawyers, judges, legislators and law professors from the Uniform Law Commission, a group appointed by state governments to draft and promote new state laws, met this summer to discuss such a proposal.

Google Searching for Answers to Digital Legacy Problems

The digital legacy that a deceased person leaves behind has been a much-talked-about subject in the estates world in recent years.  See, for example, blogs on the subject by Moira VisoiuSaman Jaffery or Nadia Harasymowycz.  There’s a March Hull on Estates podcast about this, and another from July 2011.

While there have been some legislative and judicial developments in some jurisdictions (see Nebraska’s Bill 783 for an example), it has largely been left to private industry to resolve the problems created when a person passes away leaving a large digital footprint behind.

Fortunately, Google has stepped up to the plate and introduced a new policy to resolve this issue with respect to its services.  Google’s new Inactive Account Manager feature takes leaps forward towards resolving digital legacy issues.

Called a “digital will” by some media sources including the Toronto Star, the Inactive Account Manager allows users to manage what happens to their Google-related digital assets on death, or on prolonged account inactivity.  Users may set a period of time of inactivity (three, six, nine, or twelve months), after which Google will delete their data.  Before anything is deleted, Google will notify you by email or by text message to your cell phone.  If users would prefer that their data be preserved, there is an option to have some or all of it sent to trusted contacts.  The services to which the service applies include +1s, Blogger, Contacts and Circles, Drive, Gmail, Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams, Picasa Web Albums, Google Voice, and Youtube.

This service is a clever and easy to use way to manage digital assets.  It does raise a number of questions, however.  How does this policy interact with legislation and case law about digital assets in jurisdictions that have these policies?  Will Facebook, or other online services follow suit and prepare similar policies?  Does an estate trustee under a will in Ontario have the authority (or the responsibility) to collect your digital assets from the person named on your Inactive Account Manager?

Perhaps the answers to these questions will become clear with time.  In the interim, it appears that we are left with a patchwork of policies created by different online service providers with different intentions and different philosophies.  Consider, for example, _LIVESON, a service that analyzes a user’s Twitter habits and generates automated tweets for him or her after death.  Control is placed in the hands of an “executor” who manages your _LIVESON “will”.  Although somewhat eerie, this is an interesting way to ensure that a person’s online presence not only persists after death, but continues to develop and grow.

If you are a Google user, it may be worth checking out the Inactive Account Manager and configuring your settings.  The photos, blogs, friends and videos left behind on a user’s death may mean a lot to grieving loved ones.

When updating an estate plan, digital assets are an important aspect to consider.  Lawyers should be cognizant of the issues surrounding digital legacies, and should discuss them with their clients.  People planning their wills should think about the intangibles they leave behind as well.  And if you aren’t sure where to find this information, try Google.