Death in the digital age: Are you prepared?

Death in the digital age: Are you prepared?

When 15-year-old Eric Rash committed suicide in 2011, his family and friends wanted to know why.

In a bid to find answers, they went to Eric’s Facebook account, and after failing to guess his password, appealed to the social media giant to grant them access.

Facebook refused.

Giving unauthorised access to someone other than the account holder, the company said, was against its privacy policy.

The Rashes, who live in Virginia, tried to fight their case in court, but soon found there just wasn’t any legislation that covered the management of “digital assets”.

The family’s tragic battle is just one of many examples in which the internet has been shown to be woefully unprepared for dealing with death.

“Start Quote

People are beginning to realise what they could lose”

Paul Golding Co-founder, Cirrus Legacy

In the two years since the Rashes’ case, which led to the drafting of a federal law concerning the data of minors, few countries have issued clear guidance on the rights of families to access their deceased loved ones’ data.

And despite the fact that we put more of our lives in the cloud than ever before, few of us are preparing for our digital afterlife.

Reaching maturity

“We’re accumulating far more digital records in our lives than we are physical ones,” says Evan Carroll, who runs The Digital Beyond, a website which explores the subject of digital death.

“But we haven’t yet entered the age where we are taking the question of what happens to those records seriously.”

Since Mr Carroll and his friend John Romano first raised the issue of the digital afterlife at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in 2009, some prominent companies have developed policies for dealing with deceased customers.

Google has a step-by-step process allowing users to plan what they want done with their account, and will sometimes provide the contents of an email account which hasn’t left specific instructions, after a “careful review”.

The Cloud
Cloud-based computing is leading many to put personal data on the internet

Facebook and Yahoo have taken a stricter stance, and won’t hand over data without a court order, but the former allows relatives to choose whether they want to close an account or turn it into a memorial page.

However many web companies are lagging behind.

Cloud-based services which store our financial details, emails, music collections, social media interactions, photos and many other potentially precious items have different policies on data ownership, if indeed they have any.

As a result, it is more difficult to bequeath your iTunes library to a loved one than it is to leave your CD collection to them in a shoebox.

Digital wills

So why are we leaving our digital identities hostage to fortune?

Part of the problem is that internet users have tended to be too young to be worrying about their mortality.

But as the average browser gets older (the Office for National Statistics reckons almost 70% of all 65-74-year-olds in the UK are online), the idea of drafting a “digital will” is taking hold.

“We’ve seen several thousands sign up to our various membership packages,” says Paul Golding, who co-launched Cirrus Legacy – a service which allows you to record login details for all your online accounts and leave instructions to a nominated guardian – just a year ago.

“People are beginning to realise what they could lose.”

Three steps to a digital will

  • Carroll and Romano offer a three-step process for preparing a digital will, comprising:
  • Awareness – write a proper inventory of all online accounts, so that loved ones know they exist
  • Access – work out what details are necessary to gain entry to the accounts
  • Wishes – detail who you want to grant access to, and whether you want data destroyed, passed on, or sent to a third party

Putting details of your online life in an actual will is not an option, as they are publicly accessible documents, but highlighting where they can be found is a safer bet. Although with passwords and usernames changing all the time, the challenge is to keep the information up to date.

Digital estate planning, as the process of filing your details with a third party has become known, is an increasingly popular business, and many online services offer much more than simply making arrangements for accessing accounts.

Some, such as My Wonderful Life, allow members to write messages to be sent to their dear ones from beyond the grave. Others, such as the ifidie Facebook app, give people the opportunity to share a posthumous joke, or record a confessional video to be released upon their demise.

Cost of inaction

But it is the more conventional services offered by these companies which are proving vital to grieving families.

Most of the time, families don’t even know which online accounts their relative had signed up to, let alone the login details.

And the cost of not knowing even a simple email password can be enormous, explains Evan Carroll.

“Email serves many purposes, only one of which is the digital equivalent of our mailboxes,” he says. “It is the master key to many other accounts.”

But although leaving a list of your online accounts and passwords with a digital estate service might seem like a good solution, it is riddled with risks.

Putting all your online security details in one place puts you at the mercy of a successful hacking attack. And, as Mr Golding admits, if he received “correct information” from a court of law, requiring him to hand over a list of passwords, he would “have to comply”.

IfIDie App
Services such as the ifidie Facebook app offer the chance of posthumous fame

Furthermore, using the login details left by a dead family member is potentially illegal. The terms and conditions of most established online services state that nobody other than the owner is allowed to use the account.

Your loved ones may also not thank you for some posthumous revelations. Details of extra-marital affairs or a gambling addiction, which would otherwise have been taken to the grave, could be made available to mourners.

But although much of the digital will-making process is still being ironed out, Mr Carroll urges people to do something, even if it is just writing a manual list and putting it in a safe place known only to a spouse.

“Many people say ‘I don’t have anything that I care about online’,” he says.

“But you never know what will one day be of value to your family.”

Digital Legacy Association urges hospices to support patients in managing their digital estate

Do You Have a Plan for Your Digital ‘Estate’?

When a close family member of mine passed away back in the spring, no one was surprised that this meticulous planner had left his financial affairs in good shape. The family’s longtime financial advisor coached his wife about how to open an inherited IRA to stretch out the tax-saving benefits of the vehicle, and the family attorney got to work on tying up all of the other loose ends, both financial and legal. But not every aspect of his estate has been attended to, almost six months later. His  LinkedIn (LNKD) profile is still up, as is his old  Facebook (FB) page. In the scheme of things, the fact that those accounts are still live may not seem like a big deal. But that may not have been what he had wanted, either. Because he never specified his wishes for those accounts, his family doesn’t really know. My relative’s situation illustrates that even people who think they’ve ticked off all of the usual boxes on their estate-planning to-do lists may have overlooked an increasingly important component of the process: ensuring the proper management and orderly transfer of their digital assets after they die or become disabled. Just as traditional estate-planning relates to the management and transfer of financial accounts and hard assets, digital estate-planning encompasses your digital possessions, including the tangible digital devices (computers and smartphones), stored data (either on your devices or in the cloud), and online user accounts such as Facebook and LinkedIn. The basic idea is to knit these digital assets in with the rest of your estate plan. “We need to do the next step in planning,” says James Lamm, an attorney who coaches other attorneys on the importance and specifics of digital estate planning. “Who should get the data? And more importantly, are there things we don’t want others to have?” ‘The New Reality’
As we’re all spending more and more time pecking at our phone screens and transacting online, digital assets are taking up an increasingly important role in all of our lives. “The new reality is that our lives are largely digital, and the artifacts of our digital lives have value, from both sentimental and financial standpoints,” notes Evan Carroll, co-founder ofTheDigitalBeyond.com and co-author of Your Digital Afterlife, a book about digital estate planning. At first blush, making plans to allow your loved ones to gain to access your digital property may not seem like a pressing concern–certainly not on par with issues like who should inherit your financial accounts or look after your minor children. Lamm concedes that many digital assets have little or no financial value. But he also notes that “there can be significant value if you know what to look for.”  An obvious example of a valuable digital asset would be a manuscript on the PC of a best-selling author. But domain names and advertising from Web pages and blogs may also have financial value. Downloaded assets such as digital music and book libraries may be worth something, too. And even if they don’t have monetary value, digital assets may have sentimental worth. If you don’t specifically outline what should happen to such assets when you craft the rest of your estate plan, Carroll notes that “The implications could be that your wishes are unknown to your heirs and they won’t have access to precious family mementoes or important documents.” Logistical Hurdles Abound
Digital estate planning is, in many respects, more complicated than traditional estate planning. Whereas finding and managing financial and hard assets after a loved one has died or become incapacitated isn’t always straightforward, identifying and gaining access to the digital assets of a loved one is apt to be an even more cumbersome process. Lamm says that unless the owner of those assets has left specific guidance about the existence and whereabouts of the digital assets, the deceased or disabled individual’s fiduciaries may not even be aware of their existence. Additionally, those digital assets may not only be password-protected or encrypted, but they may also be covered by data-privacy laws or criminal laws regarding unauthorized access to computer systems and private data. Fiduciaries may be able to unearth passwords and gain access to their loved ones’ online accounts, but they may not be doing so legally. The field of digital estate planning is also evolving rapidly, as are digital providers’ policies on what should happen to digital assets that are left behind. For example,  Google (GOOG) has created an Inactive Account Manager, which allows you to name a trusted person who can gain access to your data once your accounts have been inactive for a certain period of time. Facebook, meanwhile, does not currently allow others to gain access to data stored on the social media firm’s site. Digital assets are also governed by a complex web of rapidly evolving laws, both at the state and federal levels. The fact that state and federal laws and digital providers’ rules are so piecemeal, notes Carroll, should serve as an impetus for individuals to “take a few minutes and get their plans in order.” Here are several key steps to take. 1) Conduct a Digital ‘Fire Drill’
Lamm thinks a good first step in the digital estate-planning process is to conduct a digital fire drill, which tends to jog clients’ memories about what digital assets they deem important. He urges his clients to consider the following questions:

  • What valuable items would you lose if your computer was lost or stolen today?
  • If you were in an accident, would your loved ones be able to gain access to your valuable or significant digital information while you were incapacitated?
  • If you were to die today, to what valuable or significant digital property would you like your loved ones to have access?

2) Take an Inventory of Your Assets
The next must-do is to create an inventory of the digital assets you named during the fire drill. Document the item/account name as well as user names and passwords associated with that item. Among the items to document in your digital inventory are:

  • Digital devices such as computers and smartphones
  • Data-storage devices or media
  • Electronically stored data, including online financial records, whether stored in the cloud or on your device.
  • User accounts (Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, for example)
  • Domain names
  • Intellectual property in electronic format (a book you’re working on, for example)

As with the “master directory” I’ve discussed in the past, this document is chock-full of sensitive information, so keeping it safe is crucial. A printed document will tend to be the most vulnerable, unless you store it in a safe or safe deposit box. A password-protected electronic list of your digital assets and instructions on how to gain access to them is a step in the right direction, but it, too, will need to be updated on a regular basis as passwords change. Lamm is a fan of software programs such as LastPass and Dashlane, which securely store your online account information and passwords on your computer and smartphone. Web-based services such as LegacyLocker and AssetLock aim to take the extra step of making this information available to your fiduciaries, after a verification procedure. Lamm recommends a hybrid approach for most individuals. Maintain an electronic list of digital property and passwords, protected with strong encryption and a strong password and backed up in the cloud (as opposed to on your computer and smartphone alone). From there, he advises creating a master password for the electronic list, storing the password in a safe deposit box or home safe, and providing fiduciaries and family members with instructions about how to gain access to it. 3) Back It Up
We’ve all been schooled on the importance of regularly backing up digital assets, and Lamm points out that estate-planning considerations make it doubly important to do so. Even if a specific device malfunctions, storing digital assets on another storage device or in the cloud helps ensure the longevity of those assets. Moreover, online account service providers may voluntarily disclose the contents of electronic communications, but they’re not compelled to do so. If you want to help ensure that your loved ones have access to the information in your online accounts, backing it up on your own device is a best practice. 4) Put Your Plan in Writing
Experts also recommend formalizing your digital estate plan. That means naming a digital executor–someone who can ensure that your digital assets are managed or disposed of in accordance with your wishes after you’re gone. If your primary executor is savvy with technology, there’s probably no need to name a separate digital executor. But if not, or if you have particularly valuable or special digital property, such as intellectual property, Lamm advises a separate fiduciary/executor for digital assets.  Depending on the type of property, the fiduciary may also need special powers and authorizations to deal with specific assets. “Because of the complexities of criminal laws and data-privacy laws,” Lamm says, “you need the right kinds of authorizations in place.”  He also advises individuals to mention specific digital assets in their wills. “If you don’t want to pass it on, that’s fine. But if I had something valuable I wanted to pass on, I’d put it in my will.”

Digital Estate Planning: Your Social Afterlife

Digital Estate Planning: Your Social Afterlife

socialAfterlife_featurePhotoSZD

Nobody really likes to think about passing on. But there is a certain amount of business that needs to be taken care of to ensure your treasured possessions end up in the right hands. You may have written a will or an elaborate estate plan, but have you thought about what happens to your digital profiles and their content?

We send hundreds of messages on our social accounts, connecting with friends and family and posting photos of places we’ve gone, outfits we’ve worn and fun we’ve had. Our digital accounts become a scrapbook and journal of our lives.

So where will that all go when you go? And who, if anyone, will get access to it? It depends on whether you plan.

Some simple steps:

Keep or Close?

Decide what you want to have happen to your accounts and their content. Would you like the accounts to be kept alive or have them shut down? If they are shut down, do you want the content preserved? (If so, you probably should start backing up what you post now.)

Appoint a Trustee

You can create documentation with all of your accounts listed with your usernames and passwords and appoint a trustee(s) to whom you give permission to manage your accounts according to your wishes. Keep in mind, the terms and conditions of some social media accounts consider it a violation to give your username and password to someone else. Be sure to review your options for each site carefully. T&Cs are usually found in the help section.

Put together a list of all of your digital passwords and leave it in a safe place for your trustee. Just don’t put your passwords in your will – it is a public document!

Notifying Others

These days, we probably have more of our friends and family on our Facebook page and other social sites than we do in our phone address book. You might want to think about whether you would like your trustee to notify others of your demise by posting announcements on these sites.

Online Solutions

Facebook Memorial Page – Facebook handles a user death by turning a profile page into a memorial page. A family member or close friend reports the death to Facebook and will be required to provide proof, such as an obituary or death certificate. The page of the deceased will be set to private and alerts will no longer broadcast from the page, including appearing in “People You May Know” suggestions. The page will only be visible to those already connected with it. Connections will be allowed to post memories and condolences on the page’s Wall. Some families may choose not to report the death to Facebook and leave the page as it was, with photos and interactions available to be seen publicly as a testament to a full life.

Google’s Inactive Digital Account Manager – Set this up and your Google account will be automatically deactivated and deleted if it is inactive for a certain amount of time.

If I Die This Facebook app allows you to record a video to post to your Facebook connections after your demise. You appoint a trustee to launch the video when the time comes. This is your chance to have one last say.

My Wonderful Life – A site that allows you to create an online book with your desired funeral plan, leave letters for loved ones and assign “angels” to help carry out your wishes. It saves the necessity of having those awkward conversations and it’s all outlined in writing, so grieving family members know exactly what needs – and what you would like – to be done.

Your Digital Afterlife – this book by Evan Carroll provides a step-by-step guide to the whys and hows of setting up your afterlife arrangements.

With all of our passwords to track and remember, don’t you wish there was an online safety deposit box where you could keep them and pass them on to your trustees? Cirrus Legacyand LegacyLocker are two companies that have responded to the need to offer “digital safes.” You authorize who gets access to your passwords.

When There Isn’t a Plan

There are many reports of a family’s struggles to gain access to the social accounts of a departed relative.  Terms and conditions of individual sites can be strict roadblocks, and reporting a death can sometimes lead to automatic deletion of an account. Family members may never get a chance to keep content as mementos of their loved one. It can add more stress to an already difficult time.

Don’t let this happen to you. Make a plan, put it in writing and add it to your will or estate plan so you can ensure you’re in control of your digital presence, even after you’re gone.

I’ll Tweet When I’m Dead: Estate Planning in the Digital Age

I’ll Tweet When I’m Dead: Estate Planning in the Digital Age

Words Cloud, by Greek Tweeters, CC BY NC 2.0
Words Cloud, by Greek Tweeters, CC BY NC 2.0

Hooked on Twitter? Can’t miss a day without tweeting? Soon there might be a way to continue gracing followers with pithy witticisms even after we’re no longer alive. The application, now in beta, is called “LivesOn.” “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting,” the LivesOn website home page cheerily proclaims.

Welcome to the world of the “digital afterlife,” a product of the fact that we increasingly live our lives online. With the ubiquity of social media and other forms of online media, we should consider the possibility that our tweets, photos, videos, posts, blogs, likes, pins, tags, online storefronts, email messages and avatars may live on even after we have died, and whether this is what we want.

Cases in the News

A number of well-publicized cases illustrate the negative consequences of not planning what to do with online accounts in the event of an untimely death. Take the case of Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth, who was killed at the age of 20 in 2004 by a roadside bomb while deployed in Iraq. His father John Ellsworth wanted to create a memorial to his dead son and requested that Yahoo release the e-mails that his son had written while he was on duty. After a legal battle, the following year, a probate court ordered Yahoo to provide the contents of his son’s email account to Ellsworth (see Yahoo releases email of deceased Marine).

The case highlighted the tensions between an ISP’s terms of service, which are designed to protect privacy, and the needs and interests of a grieving family. Other cases have arisen that involve families who want access to the accounts of children who commit suicide or who pass away due to illness.

Why You Should Care

Digital estate planning can help prevent, or at least mitigate, the painful consequences of situations such as those encountered by the Ellsworth family. Without digital estate planning, your survivors will have to guess at what your wishes might have been. Well-meaning family members, if they have the technical capabilities, may circumvent terms of service and your privacy to access the contents of your digital accounts. Information that you may not have intended others to see may be brought to light. Alternately, valuable online information that you would have wanted your survivors to access may not be accessible and ultimately deleted.

In addition, proper digital estate planning can help prevent your identity from being stolen after you die or become incapacitated. As Gerry Beyer and Kerri Griffin note in their paper, Estate Planning for Digital Assets, “Until authorities update their databases regarding a new death, criminals can open credit cards, apply for jobs under a dead person’s name, and get state identification cards.”

Herding the Legal Cats: The UFADAA

Proper transmission of digital assets after death is an emerging area of law. Currently, the laws and guidelines in the United States on how to handle online accounts and data after death or during incapacitation are incomplete, complex, and conflicting. Fortunately, a recent legal development may help change that. On July 16 in Seattle, the Uniform Law Commission passed the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which governs access to digital assets.

Drafting a successful uniform act that addresses a task that can be emotionally fraught, in the midst of an ever-changing technical and legal landscape, was no small challenge. Among the key challenges that the ULC had to address in drafting the act were: Defining terms that have not been previously defined in any statutes, ensuring compliance with existing federal and state laws that address unauthorized access to digital information (for example, the Stored Communications ActComputer Fraud and Abuse Act, and The Digital Millennium Copyright Act), providing enough specificity to prevent unnecessarily litigation, and enough generality to allow individuals and courts leeway for evolving interpretation as technology continues to change.

According to a recent ULC press release, “The UFADAA solves the problem using the concept of ‘media neutrality.’ If a fiduciary would have access to a tangible asset, that fiduciary will also have access to a similar type of digital asset.” The uniform act covers four types of fiduciaries:

  • Personal representatives (also known as executors) of a deceased person’s estate
  • Conservators (also known as guardians) for a living person
  • Agents acting under a power of attorney
  • Trustees of a trust

While the UFADAA would vest fiduciaries with the authority to access, control, or copy digital assets, it would honor the account holder’s intent to keep certain assets private.

Ultimately, after a final review and edit of the UFADAA (anticipated this fall), this uniform act will be finalized and available for consideration and adoption by the states.

What You Can Do Now to Plan Your Digital Estate

In the meantime, you can still develop an effective digital estate plan, in consultation with your attorney. Key steps will include:

  • Completing a digital asset inventory
  • Identifying a digital executor and consulting with your attorney
  • Providing access to your digital assets
  • Providing instructions on how to administer your digital assets
  • Granting your digital executor(s) authority to administer your digital estate

Also, it won’t hurt to familiarize yourself with your online service providers’ terms of service and other relevant resources. Key resources that you may want to start with include the following:

In addition to these resources, digital death and afterlife experts Evan Carroll and John Romano maintain a digital death and afterlife online services list on their blog, the digital beyond.

Digital Executor Can Honor Your Digital Legacy

Digital Executor Can Honor Your Digital Legacy

Key, representing the info you should give to your digital executor
Key, representing the info you should give to your digital executor

If you’re like most Internet-savvy people, you have digital footprints all across the Web, from Paypal and Flickr to Amazon, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and video game sites. You probaly also have auto-renewal accounts for sites like Consumer Reports and your local newspaper. So what happens to all of these accounts when you die?

Worst-case scenario: A family member accesses your email account and finds messages that you don’t want revealed, including keys to access your online financials for banking and brokerages. If the wrong people gain access, photos that you don’t want exposed might go online. Tweets and Facebook posts in your name might appear. The potential for mischief is significant.You most likely have a will naming an executor, but who will deal with your non-financial digital online presence after you pass? The authors of the new book, Your Digital Afterlife, have a number of suggestions for dealing with this end-of-life question.

Authors Evan Carroll and John Romano suggest first creating a list of websites that you would like dealt with, along with access user names and passwords. (You do store your passwords securely, right? Not on a piece of paper hidden under your keyboard?)

With this in hand, sit down with the person you would choose as your digital executor. This is not necessarily your will executor, unless you trust them to have the ability and willingness to take on these additional tasks. (Don’t put your passwords in your will; that becomes a public document.)

Your digital executor would, on your passing, visit your sites (except sites on which you have a financial account, which will be a responsibility of the will executor) and carry out your wishes. Some you might want transferred to next of kin, such as family photos on a site like Photobucket. Some you might want closed, such as Amazon. Some you might want destroyed, such as your Gmail email history.

Unfortunately, as the authors point out, there are no industry standards for how sites deal with deceased members. Yahoo, for example, does not in its terms of service allow its sites, such as Flickr, to be transferred to another person. Others will allow another to control an account only on proof of death.

There are a surprising number of Web services already established to help with the planning and execution of one’s digital bequest.Datainheritance.com allows you to set up access by your digital executor to your passwords upon your death. Legacylocker.com permits you to set up beneficiaries of your various accounts: You could “gift” your oldest child with your online photo account, your brother with your fantasy baseball team, your cousin with your Farmville empire and your sister with your Ancestry.com account, all assuming that the sites allow it in their terms of service.

No one likes to dwell on their mortality, but as our lives are increasing led online, many of us will want to shape our online legacy rather than leave it to decay over time like an abandoned shack.