When approaching the difficult task of accessing websites and online accounts, dealing with it is divided between two options: having the password or not having the password.
If you have a password – you can get in
If you don’t have a password, but have access to an e-mail account, in most of the websites you could click on “I forgot my password” and a link will be sent by e-mail, to create a new password. Once you have created it, you can get into the website / account
If you haveneither a password nor access to an e-mail account, the dealings get more complicated, because they involve approaching the online services providers. Some are already set for dealing with death of clients and present clear policies and guidelines in this regard, but some are still grappling with it or have done so until recently. Twitter, for instance, published their policy only in August 2010.
Another element you’ll need to take into consideration is TIME. In certain cases, only a narrow window of time is available through which you could take care of the deceased’s digital legacy:
On facebook, for instance, at any moment someone might turn his or her profile into a memorial profile (your consent isn’t required and you’ll find yourselves locked out of the account – even if you have a valid password). Therefore, the first thing I recommend you do is download a copy of the profile’s content (for “how to” scroll down, under “Facebook”).
Sometimes you’ll have access to accounts only for a limited amount of time: if the deceased passed away while his / her smartphone / tablet / laptop / computer was still logged on, you would still have access through this device to his or her online accounts. But eventually you’ll be prompted to re-enter the passwords, and when you can’t provide one, you’ll be locked out of these accounts. Therefore, I recommend you take advantage of this access while you have it, and set as many new passwords as you can, to ensure you have independent access to the accounts – at least to begin with. Maybe later on you’ll decide to close the accounts, or not to go into them, but at least you’ll have a choice.
I know you already have so much to handle after the death of a loved one, and maybe his or her digital legacy doesn’t strike you as urgent, but unfortunately, by the time you do get around to dealing with it, it’ll be too late, and invaluable, precious data will be permanently lost – in a way which cannot be restored.
Entrustet used to have a wonderful blog, and in it a “Digital Executor Toolbox” could be found. Unfortunately, when Entrusted was purchased by SecureSafe, the blog went offline, which is a pity. It used to have useful information about how to close online accounts and delete digital assets after the user has passed away. I hope it will go online again. In the meanwhile, I have compiled a list here for your convenience. A click on each link will take you to the relevant page of the online service provider. International companies (Israeli companies listed below)
“If an individual has passed away and you need access to the contents of his or her email account, in rare cases wemaybe able to provide the Gmail account content to an authorized representative of the deceased user. …. Any decision to provide the contents of a deceased user’s email will be made only after a careful review, and the application to obtain email content is a lengthy process. Before you begin, please understand that Google may be unable to provide the Gmail account content….”
Between the time I wrote this post as a draft and print-screened this page and the time I published this post, YouTube took their policy offline. Right now there isn’t an online policy regarding a deceased YouTube member’s account. I’ve sent YouTube a query about this and will update this post once I have news.
“The Microsoft Next of Kin process allows for the release of Hotmail contents, including all emails and their attachments, address book, and Messenger contact list, to the next of kin of a deceased or incapacitated account holder and/or closure of the Hotmail account, following a short authentication process. We cannot provide you with the password to the account or change the password on the account, and we cannot transfer ownership of the account to the next of kin. Account contents are released by way of a data DVD which is shipped to you.”
“To close the account of a deceased LinkedIn member you’ll need to submit a Verification of Death form. Note: This form requires an email address registered to the deceased member’s account. Without this important piece of information, we will not be able to address your request.”
This used to be MySpace’s policy, but they updated it in July 2012:
“We will only remove or preserve the profile of a deceased user at the request of the next of kin or at the request of the executor of the estate. Myspace will not allow access or update the log-in information for a profile for any circumstance… However, if you have access to the email account tied to the Myspace profile, you can retrieve the password by clicking www.myspace.com/auth/resetpassword“.
“In order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone.”
My advice is: if you have access to the Facebook account of your loved one who passed away, the first thing you should do is download a copy of it (General Account Settings > Download a copy). If someone were to notify Facebook that the account owner has passed away, Facebook will block all access to the profile and you will not be able to get in – even if you do have the password. Facebook’s policy is controversial: anyone can notify that a person has passed away, not just members of his immediate family. Hence, the spouse / child / parent might suddenly find themselves with the profile turning into a deceased person’s profile, without their request. Once a profile is “memorized”, as they call it, only friends can see it and locate it in search results see update below, and some of the content disappears while some of it remains – and you have no control over it. Very little information is required in order to report someone as gone: Report a Deceased Person’s Profile
Following John Berlin’s appeal to see the ‘Look Back’ video of his deceased son, Jesse Berlin, Facebook now allows members of a deceased user to watch his or her ‘Look Back’ video. Please note: a request to see a Look Back video of a user who passed away equals a request to memoralize the account, even if this wasn’t your intention, so please make sure you understand the consequences of your act before making this request. If you are certain you wish for his or her account to be momoralized, or if the account is already memoralized, you can make the request here. Thank youDamien McCallig for highlighting this point.
Facebook took this opportunity to also change the privacy settings of memoralized accounts: from now on, the content will remain visible as the owner defined it while he/she was still alive. Meaning: if certain content was made visible publiclicly, it will remain so. If certain content was made visible to friends of friends, it will remain so – unlike what the policy was up until now: that once an account was memoralized, all the content was visible to friends only.
A word about Facebook‘s policy of memorializing an account: Of course this is very personal, but I think and feel it is better to keep “running into” my dead brother’s profile on Facebook as if he were still alive, than to have his profile declared as a profile of a dead person. I do not wish for certain content out of his profile to disappear, as it will disappear without any of us having a say about what stays and what disappears – it is determined by Facebook’s policy only.
Ever since my brother was killed, he has received hundreds of friendship requests, and as far as I can tell, all are by people who realize he is dead. I am puzzled by this: Is it their initiative, or in response to Facebook suggesting him as a possible friend? Is it their way of showing their respect to him? Their way of expressing their sorrow over missing out the opportunity to be his friends while he was still alive? Do they expect their request of friendship to be accepted? Is there a bit of voyeurism in it – to see which content they will be granted access to as friends, that they couldn’t see before? How would they feel if “he” will suddenly approve their request, since it will be clear it was not done by him but by a family member?
Since approving a friendship request grants access to certain content which only friends can see, I feel no one has the right or authority to approve friendship requests but the deceased.
None of the Israeli companies publish their policy regarding death of a client online. I gathered the following information from each one as a service to the readers of this blog. Walla!
Walla! will grant you the password to the mailbox as soon as you follow their clear policy in this regard. Email them at: email@example.com and ask for a copy of their instructions in English (In a nutshell, you will need to provide both proof of death and proof of your relation to the deceased). You should contact them as soon as you can: an e-mail account that hasn’t been used in 3 months might be closed by the company. 012 Smile
Unfortunately, there is no point in contacting this company. They will only grant access to the e-mail under court order. Contact your lawyer instead. Bezeq International
You can notify Bezeq International someone has passed away either by phone: *3014 or by chat with a customer service representative. You will only need to supply the ID number and the last fourdigits of the method of payment of the deceased, and they will give you the e-mail password. You will need to provide a copy of a death certificate, oddly enough, not in order to gain access to the e-mail account, but in order to receive a refund for unused Internet services.
If you wish to keep the e-mail active, you can do so: the first 6 months for free, and from the 7th months onward by paying 9.90 NIS per month. TheMarker Cafe
You can notify TheMarker Cafe by phone 03-5133697 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, but they will only grant access to the account under court order. 013 Netvision
You can notify Netvision by phone: *3013 or by e-mail email@example.com. As soon as you present a copy of the death certificate, ID number and last four digits of method of payment, you will be granted full access to all the services the deceased was subscribed to – including e-mail and cloud backup. This is relevant however only if they had a private account. If they had a business account, only the owner of the company can contact Netvision, or the person registered at Netvision as the contact person for the company the deceased person worked for. Tapuz
You will have to have a Hebrew speaking person next to you, as Tapuz can only be contacted by a Hebrew form in their website. They will only assist you in gaining access to the account if you have access to the e-mail address that the person who passed away registered with. If you don’t, they will assist you only if there is a legal cause for it, or under court order. Isra-Blog
Isra-Blog is part of Nana10 and can be notified about a death of a blogger by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. They don’t have a consistent policy: in some cases, the blog will be taken offline. In other cases, a family member will be granted access to it – depending, among other factors, on the family wishes. Nana10
You can contact Nana10 by e-mail email@example.com, but access to the mailbox will only be granted under court order.
What is so frustrating about the long, complex dealings with the various Internet providers and their different policies – which includes heartache and helplessness – is that the people left behind after the death could have easily been spared all that – if only the deceased had left their usernames and passwords behind. They could have accessed their accounts without the provider ever knowing the user was dead. Several products (some of them for free) offer this exact service: keeping track of websites, user names and passwords, along with instructions of who may access what, are detailed in this post: Managing Your Digital Legacy.
Settling Estate: What Do I Do When Someone Dies?
Settling the estate can be a trying process, particularly for those grieving. By following these practical steps and being aware of state law, you can ease the process for everyone involved. Settling the estate means safeguarding your loved one’s property during the administration process, paying debts and taxes, and distributing the assets of the estate to those who are entitled to receive it.
Note: The following legal and logistical information is most readily applicable to residents of California. However, where California’s laws or procedures differ greatly from those of the majority of other states, we have made an effort to make our out-of-state readers aware of this.
1. Initial Tasks
Handling the estate starts with a few practical tasks:
Determine Who Is the Executor or Trustee Consult with an attorney if it is unclear who has been appointed by the will or trust.
Arrange for Temporary Care of Minor Children and Other Dependents Your first task is to set up temporary care for any minor children and other dependents of the person who died. You might need to look into day care, hospice, or pet care services for temporary assistance until a longer-term solution can be found. For information on the legal process, see 3. Minors and Dependent Adults below.
Obtain Certified Copies of the Death Certificate You will need death certificates for a variety of purposes, so it’s a good idea to have plenty of copies. Read our section about the Death Certificate in Immediate Help for more information.
Look for a Will or Trust Locate a will, trust, or any other important after-death documents. For tips on locating these documents, see our section on Locating Important Documents in Immediate Help.
Collect the Mail Collecting the person’s mail protects his or her privacy, but it also serves an important administrative function. The mail will help you identify the person’s property, because account statements and other documents relating to his or her property will arrive by mail. Bills will arrive by mail too, which will help you identify potential creditors.
Paying the Bills
After a death, bills will continue to arrive for expenses incurred during the person’s lifetime. These may include medical bills, credit card statements, utility and cell phone bills, invoices for mortgage payments, tax bills, insurance premiums, and so on. Here are a few tips for how to handle bills:
Surviving spouses may be personally liable for the person’s debts, depending on state law. If you are a surviving spouse, consult with an attorney about whether and to what extent you should pay your spouse’s bills.
If you are not the surviving spouse, do not pay bills from your own personal bank accounts. If you do, you may be deemed to have assumed responsibility for paying the debt.
Legitimate bills should be paid from accounts that belonged to the person, and such payments should be made only by someone who is authorized to make decisions, such as a Trustee or Executor. Forward bills to the Trustee or Executor, or if no one is yet serving as Trustee or Executor, hold the bills temporarily without paying them until someone is appointed to serve.
It is the job of the Trustee or Executor to identify what bills are legitimate, to fulfill creditor notification requirements, and to accept or reject creditor claims. The Trustee or Executor should consult with legal counsel about completing these tasks, because failure to fulfill the legal requirements could expose the Trustee or Executor to liability.
If creditors press for payment before a Trustee or Executor has been appointed, let them know that all bills are on hold pending appointment of an authorized legal representative. If the creditor threatens legal action or files a claim, contact a lawyer immediately.
Secure the Residence, Automobiles, and Tangible Property Lock the person’s residence and car, and allow no one to take tangible personal property that belonged to them. Tangible personal property includes furniture, antiques, artwork, as well as personal effects like clothing, jewelry, and personal documents. If there are people you do not know who have keys to the house, consider changing the locks. If you cannot reliably secure the residence, consider packing up the tangible personal property and moving it to a secure location such as a storage locker. If people you do not know have extra sets of keys to the car, move the car to a locked garage.
Notify Credit Card Companies and Credit Reporting Agencies Toprotect against fraud, notify credit card companies that the person has passed away, and that no one should be permitted to make additional charges to the credit cards following the date of death. Let them know that the Executor or Trustee intends to close the accounts. Send a letter to each of the three major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, letting them know that the person has passed away and instructing them that no one should be allowed to use his or her name or social security number to apply for new credit.
Notify the Employer If the person was employed at the time of death, notify the employer. Arrange for delivery of the final paychecks, and deposit the income checks into a bank account held in the name of the person or the person’s living trust. Ask the employer to identify the benefits provided by the employer to the person, such as health insurance coverage, life insurance, and retirement plans.
Notify Social Security If the person was receiving social security checks, notify the Social Security Administration immediately. Often the funeral home or service provider will send a notice as a courtesy. Otherwise, call the Administration at the phone number provided on their website www.ssa.gov. Some family members may be eligible to collect a portion of the person’s Social Security benefits. Ask the Administration to provide you with information on survivor benefits, or consult with an attorney.
Notify Veterans Affairs Administration If the person was a U.S. war veteran, call the federal Department of Veterans Affairs and have any veteran benefit payments stopped. There are cash benefits of $300 to $2,000 to the family members of veterans depending on the type of duty and the situation at death. Also, ask the VA about burial benefits, or visit the VA burial benefits page here. You will need the person’s VA number or service number and active dates of service.
How the assets of the person who died are administered depends on whether he or she left a will or a trust. To administer his or her property, you must meet specific legal requirements. Failing to follow the process can result in personal liability for the Trustee or Executor. We strongly recommend that you consult with an attorney who is experienced in trust and estate administration to advise you on the legal requirements. The attorney should be licensed to practice law in the state where the person was residing at the time of death. To find attorneys in your area, look up Legal Counsel on our Local Resources page.
Revocable Living Trust A revocable living trust, also simply called a living trust, has become a widely used estate-planning tool, partly for the purpose of avoiding probate, which is further discussed below. A trust is an agreement between a “Grantor,” the person who creates the trust and transfers property into the trust, and a “Trustee,” the person who holds the property and administers it for the benefit of “beneficiaries.” When a Grantor sets up a “revocable living trust” for his or her benefit, he or she typically also serves as the initial trustee. After the Grantor dies, the trust becomes irrevocable, and a named successor steps in to serve as trustee. The successor trustee must hold or distribute the trust property for the named beneficiaries and in accordance with the instructions set forth in the trust agreement. The trust administration process occurs privately, for example, without Court involvement or oversight.
What if Property is not in the Trust? If the person set up a revocable living trust, but his or her property was never transferred into the trust after death, you should consult with an attorney. Depending on the circumstances and state law, such property could potentially be confirmed to be property of the trust. If not, such property will be subject to probate, as discussed below.
Last Will and Testament If there is no trust, but the person left a will, the assets of the estate must be administered through “probate.” Probate is the Court process for settling the estate of someone who died. A family member must petition to have the will admitted to the Court and ask for an Executor to be appointed. Once the Executor receives “letters of administration,” he or she must fulfill the legal duties set forth under state law (For example file an inventory of assets, notify creditors, and pay debts and taxes.), and after the administrative tasks are completed, the Executor must distribute the estate property in accordance with the instructions in the will and under the supervision of the Court. Probate fees can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on state law, and probate can take one to two years to complete. High fees and long delays are two of the reasons why many people decide to set up revocable living trusts—property in a trust generally is exempt from probate.
No Estate Plan If the person left no trust and no will, he or she is said to have died “intestate.” An intestate estate is subject to probate, too. Under intestacy, the person’s property must be given to whoever is entitled to receive it under state law. Typically, a surviving spouse and descendants are the first in line to inherit. If the person had no surviving spouse and no living descendants, then his or her parents would generally inherit next, and if parents are no longer alive, siblings and their descendants are typically next in line. The specific rules of intestate succession vary by state law.
Small Estate Administration and Spousal Petitions In some states, there are exceptions to the probate requirement. If your loved one’s estate is a “small estate” as defined under state law, a simpler process may be available to transfer assets to the beneficiaries. In California, for example, if the estate has no real property with a date-of-death market value of more than $50,000 and the estate has a total value of less than $150,000, the beneficiaries of the property can have the assets transferred to themselves by completing affidavits. Also in California, if the person is survived by a spouse, the surviving spouse can use a spousal petition to take title to property he or she is inheriting, instead of having to conduct a formal probate proceeding.
Joint Property Joint property, such as real property titled in joint tenancy with right of survivorship or joint bank accounts, transfers automatically to the survivor upon the death of either joint owner. Joint property typically is not subject to probate under state law. If you are the surviving owner, you must complete paperwork to remove the owner who has died from the title. For example, for real property, an affidavit of death of joint tenant must be recorded with the County where the property is located. The affidavit removes the name of the person who died from the property and places it entirely in the name of the surviving owner.
Pay-on-Death Account or a Totten Trust Pay-on-death (“P.O.D.”) accounts or a Totten trust automatically transfer to the payee upon the death of the owner. Like joint property, these type of accounts bypass probate. You should notify the banks where the person held accounts of his or her death, and provide them a copy of the death certificate. The banks will then contact any beneficiaries directly. If you are the beneficiary, the bank will likely ask you to complete forms to transfer the account to your name.
Life Insurance Policies and Retirement Plans Life insurance proceeds and retirement plans are paid directly to the beneficiaries named on the policies and plans and are not subject to probate. If the person failed to name beneficiaries, however, the life insurance proceeds and retirement plans will have to be paid to the person’s estate, which could trigger a probate. Contact the institutions holding the life insurance policies and retirement plans, and inform them of the person’s death. The institutions will contact the named beneficiaries directly.
Guardian of the Person If the person who died left minor children, and the other parent is no longer alive, a guardian “of the person” will have to be appointed for the children by the Court. The guardian of the person is the individual who is granted physical custody of the children and is responsible for their care and upbringing until they reach age 18.
Nomination of Guardian by Person Who Died If the person left a will, check whether the will included a nomination of guardian. A nomination of guardian is the parent’s expressed wish for who should take custody of the children in the event that both parents have died. Courts typically place great weight on the wishes of the parents when appointing a guardian, but keep in mind that the wishes of the parents will not necessarily be determinative. The Court may appoint a different person if the Court believes that doing so would be in the best interest of the children.
Assets of Minors If both parents have died, their minor children will also likely inherit their property. Minors, however, cannot legally manage their own assets. If the parents left the property to the children in a trust, the Trustee will be in charge of managing the assets for the minor children under the terms of the trust. If there is no trust, the Court will likely have to establish a guardianship “of the estate.” The guardian of the estate is responsible for managing the minor’s assets until age 18.
Dependent Adults If the person who died was caring for an elderly parent or another dependent adult, check whether the dependent adult has a general durable power of attorney or a living trust. If so, the adult’s affairs should be handled by his or her agent or trustee. Contact that agent or trustee, and contact the adult’s attorney, and inform them of the person’s death. If there is no power of attorney and no trust, the Court may have to establish a conservatorship for the adult. A conservatorship is similar to a guardianship, except that the subject is an incapacitated adult, instead of a minor child. A conservatorship gives the conservator authority over the incapacitated adult’s physical care and financial matters.
To learn how to establish a guardianship for a minor or a conservatorship for an incapacitated adult, consult with an attorney.
Estate Taxes If you are serving as Trustee or Executor, you should consult with legal counsel and an accountant about whether estate tax returns must be filed. The estate tax is a tax on all property owned by the person at the time of death. In addition, you may include in the estate certain gifts made during life for estate tax purposes.
Federal Estate Tax In any given year, there is an applicable federal estate tax exemption. The value of the estate that exceeds the exemption is subject to the tax. Under the Tax Relief Act of 2010, the applicable exemption for 2011 was set at $5,000,000, and in 2012, the exemption increased to $5,120,000. The 2011 and 2012 maximum federal estate tax rate is 35%. In 2013, however, the exemption is scheduled to drop down to $1,000,000, and the maximum rate is set to increase to 55%. Anyone whose estate at the time of death has a value in excess of the applicable exemption amount in that year is required to file an estate tax return. You may need to have property appraisals done to determine accurate date-of-death values. In addition, for a married person who passes away in 2011 and 2012 with a surviving spouse, an estate tax return may be filed to preserve the “portability” of the person’s federal estate tax exemption, even if the value of the estate is below the exemption amount. For help deciding whether to file an estate tax return, please consult with an attorney or accountant.
State Estate Taxes Also ask your attorney or accountant whether the state where the person who died was living has a state-level estate tax. The state-level applicable exemption amount and tax rate may differ from the federal estate tax. A few states, like California, have abolished the state estate tax.
Income Taxes A personal income tax return must be filed for the first part of the last year of the person’s life through the date of death. The surviving spouse may file as married jointly on behalf of both spouses. For the second part of the year, a fiduciary tax return will have to be filed for income earned by the person’s estate or trust after the date of death. For example, if the person owned rental property held in a trust, the trust would have to file an income tax return, reporting rental income for the second part of the year following the date of death. Special rules apply to income earned during life but received only after death. Seek the assistance of an attorney or an accountant to prepare the income tax returns.
Tax ID Number You’ll need to get a tax ID number for the Estate or Trust in order to file a fiduciary tax return. For more information on how to obtain a tax ID number, visit www.irs.gov, or ask your attorney or accountant.
Capital Gains Tax Capital gains taxes are based on an appreciation in value. For example, if someone purchased stock in 2002 for $300,000 and then sold it in 2012 for $400,000, there would a capital gain of $100,000. That “capital gain” of $100,000 would be subject to a 15% federal capital gains tax, as well as state capital gains tax. The purchase price of $300,000 in this example is called the “basis” and the sale price of $400,000 is called the “amount realized.”
For property that is inherited, however, the basis is “stepped up” to the full fair market value at the date of death. In the example above, if instead of selling the stock, the owner dies when the stock has a value of $400,000, and the heirs of the person then immediately sell the stock for $400,000, the basis would be stepped up from $300,000 to the $400,000 value on the date of death, and there would be no capital gain. Capital gains tax could be due, however, if the value appreciates between the date of death and the date of sale. If you have inherited property and are considering selling it, consult with a tax professional about whether a capital gains tax could be due.
What, if any, insurance policies of the person who died should be kept in effect following the date of death?
Homeowners and Renters Insurance You should maintain the homeowners and renters insurance policies so long as the property remains in the Estate or Trust, to protect the Estate and Trust assets in case of property damage or lawsuits. Cancelling the coverage could actually expose the Executor or Trustee to liability for breach of fiduciary duty, if property damage or lawsuits deplete the assets as a result of lapsed insurance coverage. The Executor should inform the insurance company of the death in writing and request that the Estate be added to the policy as a “named insured” as soon as possible in order to secure the same rights as the person who died.
Automobile Insurance You should consider maintaining the insurance policy on the car if the rates are favorable. Most auto insurance companies will continue to cover the vehicle and the new legal owner at the same rate under the “permissive use” clause of the insurance agreement. Alternatively, if the car will lay idle during the administration period, or if it will be sold, you can consider registering the car for “planned non-operation” with the state DMV and cancelling the insurance policy, to save expenses for the Estate.
Health Insurance Thanks to COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, 1986), if the person who died received employer health insurance, surviving spouses and dependents will be eligible for continued coverage following his or her death, if they were originally covered. You can contact the insurance company or the employer in order to remove the person from coverage, while continuing coverage under the existing policy for qualifying family members.
Certain assets raise unique issues that the Executor or Trustee may need to address.
Personal Residence If the personal residence of the person who died was a rental, to save ongoing expenses, the Executor or Trustee may decide to terminate the lease, vacate the premises, and place all of the tangible property in storage until they are distributed. If the person owned his or her own home, check whether the will or trust hands over the residence to anyone. If not, the Executor or Trustee should determine whether any of the residual beneficiaries wish to take ownership of the property, provided there are other equal assets that can be distributed to other beneficiaries.
Alternatively, the Executor or Trustee may sell the property and distribute the net proceeds. A title search should be done to find out whether there are mortgages or liens against the property. If the residence is underwater, the Executor and Trustee would have to decide whether to pursue foreclosure, a deed in lieu of foreclosure, or a short sale as a means of disposing of the property. For assistance with underwater properties, you should seek the advice of an attorney and a realtor.
If the surviving spouse, minor children, or other family members were residing with the person at the time of death, they might have the right to continue living there during the administration of the estate or trust, depending on state law. Consult with an attorney about whether occupants can be allowed to remain in the person’s home and for how long, or whether they will have to move from the premises.
Other Real Estate If the person who died owned other real estate, check whether there are tenants occupying their property. If so, look for a copy of the lease agreement among his or her papers, and arrange for rental income checks to be sent to the Executor or Trustee. Find out whether the person had hired a property management company, and if so, request a copy of the property management agreement. If the property will be sold, you should consult with an attorney and a realtor as to whether steps should be taken to remove the occupants from the premises before the property is listed for sale.
Bank Accounts If there is no trust, the accounts of the person who died should be retitled to the name of the estate. To do so, the bank will likely request from you copies of the death certificate and the letters of administration, as well as the Estate’s tax ID number. You can consolidate cash accounts into a single Estate account for ease of administration.
Business Interests If the person was the owner of a small business, check the will or trust for instructions as to the disposition of the business. The death of the owner can result in a sudden and steep decline in the business value. To mitigate against potential loss, you can immediately contact any co-owners or senior staff members to arrange for the continuing operation of the business, and to set up a system for collecting income and paying expenses during the administration of the estate or trust. The executor or trustee should decide as quickly as possible, based on the instructions in the will or trust, whether the business will be closed, sold, or liquidated. If the business is put up for sale, an appraiser may be needed to determine the value of the business. If the person was a licensed professional, for example an attorney, architect, dentist, or psychologist, the state may impose special rules regarding the winding up or sale of the business. Consult with an attorney to discuss the legal requirements.
Tangible Property You should identify items specifically entrusted to anyone in the person’s estate plan documents, and secure such items until they are ready to be distributed to the beneficiaries. If there are valuable vehicles, artwork, jewels, or antiques, consider having those items appraised. All remaining items of tangible property are typically distributed equally to the residual beneficiaries—that is in shares of roughly equal value, as the beneficiaries agree among themselves. For example, one way the beneficiaries can divide up the items is to take turns choosing them; perhaps you can draw cards to determine who gets to choose first. Read our blog post about dividing family heirlooms for tips.
Another option you have is to sell the remaining tangible property– for example, in an estate sale. There are many companies that manage such sales in return for a fee or percentage of total sales, or you can conduct one yourself. The net proceeds would then be distributed to the beneficiaries. Look up Estate Liquidation & Moving services on our Local Resources page. You can also make donations of the remaining items to one or more charitable organizations. Listed below are resources for donating different types of items:
CDs and DVDs You may be able to sell CDs and DVDs at a local used record store or online. Alternatively, you can try donating items to your local public library or school, or to organizations that are building libraries, as described in this article by Planet Green.
Computers and Electronics There are many regional options for recycling obsolete or damaged computers or electronics, or so-called “e-waste.” Some organizations will pick up these items for you. You can search the EPA’s directory for such organizations near you.
Children’s Toys New or gently used children’s toys, stuffed animals, or books can be donated to Stuffed Animals for Emergencies (SAFE), an organization that collects items to benefit children during emergency situations such as fire, illness, accidents, neglect, abuse, homelessness, or floods.
Art Supplies Items like art supplies, boxes, string, fabric, and paperboard can be donated. Web search “Creative Reuse Center” to locate a center near you where you can donate such miscellaneous items to help teachers, businesses, and artists.
Wedding Dress You can donate used wedding dresses to charitable organizations such as Brides Against Breast Cancer, a group that is funding an initiative called Making Memories to help those who are losing the battle with breast cancer.
Automobiles You will have to determine, based on the person’s will or Trust, who is the intended beneficiary of his or her automobile. To transfer title to the beneficiary, contact your state’s DMV and complete the required paperwork. Be prepared to provide the DMV with a certified copy of the death certificate as well as copies of valid registration papers and insurance coverage. If there is no named beneficiary for the car, and no residual beneficiary wishes to have the car, the Executor or Trustee may decide to donate it rather than trying to sell it. Habitat for Humanity, for one, accepts donated cars, sells them, and uses the funds to help build and secure affordable housing for at-need families.
Leftover Medications Similar to batteries and electronics, you should safely dispose of leftover medications. They are generally comprised of a wide variety of chemicals that can be hazardous when combined, and highly environmentally detrimental when they end up in landfills or filter into the water supply. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration recommends taking medications to local take-back centers. To find a take-back center near you, ask your local pharmacy or contact your local water management agency. You can also donate leftover medications to organizations such as the Afya Foundation and Aid for AIDS, which channel unused medications to Third World countries.
Email and Networking Accounts Consider hiring termination services to terminate the person’s email accounts and social and business networking accounts on websites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Each company has its own policies as to what happens to online accounts after death, and whether the person’s online personal information or records can be accessed. See 7. Digital Death for more information.
Asset Search Services Finally, if you think the person who died may have had other unidentified property, you can consider hiring asset search services in order to locate any unknown assets, such as real property or accounts in other states. You can search state databases, or use services like Missing Money to locate unclaimed assets or property.
With so much of our lives online, digital property is becoming an increasingly important part of estate planning and settling the estate, just like physical property. When someone dies, their online accounts, including email and social media accounts, will live on unless otherwise dealt with.
Digital Estate Services The person who died may have stipulated their wishes in their will regarding their digital property. He or she may have also used an online service. Some companies allow you to create a “digital safety deposit box” with all of your account information stored in one place, and a beneficiary listed for each account. Whoever the person named as a “verifier” will be asked to verify his or her death, and then the beneficiaries of the person’s respective accounts will be notified.
If no arrangements regarding digital property were made, or if you cannot find out if they did, you may still be able to access or delete their online accounts. Currently, Gmail and Hotmail will mail the person’s information to the estate holder. Facebook will not grant access to the account, but if you contact them you can request that the person’s profile be taken down or turned into a memorial page.
Only five states – Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, Indiana, and Connecticut – currently have laws regarding digital property assets, though more are likely on their way. For information on individual state laws where they exist, visit the Digital Estate Resource page. Or for Digital Asset Services, visit our Local Resources page.
You are likely reading this via your e-mail or online via the World Wide Web. You may also access your bank accounts and credit cards as well as Amazon, PayPal, etc. via the internet. Many of you post to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Pinterest to name a few. If you have digital pictures or you back up your smartphones, this is all done online. You may even store important data files online at sites such as Carbonite. For many of us, more and more of our lives take place in an online, digital world. Our digital “footprint” grows larger all the time whether we realize it or not. But what happens to all of this when you are gone? How do your heirs access your important files and accounts? What kind of value does this have? Should this all be preserved or disposed? In today’s world, your online legacy can really become a tangled web.
Traditional estate planning very rarely gets into this topic and most people don’t consider the immortality of our digital footprint. However, with the online world becoming such a big part of many or our lives, we need to plan for this along with everything else in our estate. Experts say it is now essential to include provisions in your wills and powers of attorney outlining how to access and dispose, of digital assets such as photos, e-mails and online presence on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. If you conduct virtually all of your transactions online, it might be hard for your executor to find all of your accounts, assets and outstanding bills.
Survivors need to be able to access online accounts and e-mail and will need to know which sites you frequented, along with the user names and passwords to gain access to these sites. This information is being referred to as a “Cyber Will”. A “Cyber Will” identifies an online executor whose responsibility it is to access and shut down a decedent’s social media, e-mail, blogs, online accounts, etc. This “Cyber Will” is not really a legal instrument but provides the instructions, user names and passwords to family and friends for dealing with your online accounts. The goal is to ensure that the deceased’s online assets can be accessed and that the content is handled in accordance with the wishes of that person.
Documenting how to access accounts is extremely important. Without a username or password, it can take months or longer to access accounts and many large firms are reluctant to grant access to anyone other than the original user. (Password management sounds like a great idea for a future article) This information can be written and shared with the attorney, executor or other family members, or kept in a safe deposit box. One place you DO NOT want to put it, though, is in your will. Since a will is a public document, you DO NOT want this information included where everyone can see it.
Digital assets such as music and books that reside online are usually not allowed to be passed from the deceased to their heirs. Most commercial sites such as Apple, Amazon, Yahoo, etc. only allow the license to these items to exist with the person who bought it. Since everyone reads all the lines in those “Terms of Service Agreements” before clicking “Accept” we all know this already. This purchased content from iTunes and places like Amazon’s Kindle is fiercely protected by these companies as individuals buying media online are not granted actual ownership but are leasing the materials for the rest of their lives.
There are some companies that have sprung up in the last few years to take advantage of the demand for online estate planning. They are considered digital estate management services and provide ways for storing passwords and providing instructions to loved ones on how to deal with their online assets. They may also offer services that destroy the online content that the person would like to have destroyed after their death. Legacy Locker (now known as PasswordBox) and SecureSafe are two of the more recognizable companies providing these services. These companies are also password management providers which provide ways to manage your growing password collection.
There are also smartphone apps such as “Deathswitch”, “My Last Wish”, and “If I Die” that allow the departed to let loved ones know about their final wishes and to send a message to loved ones after they are gone. These apps aren’t so much used for conveying user names and passwords, but more for leaving messages and instructions for survivors.
Getting back to Facebook accounts, nearly 400,000 Facebook users die each year, so Facebook now provides options for loved ones to either close accounts or memorialize the departed. Memorialized accounts can only be accessed by confirmed friends and family and they can leave messages in remembrance. The accounts can be left open indefinitely.
As you are preparing your estate plan or the next time you are updating your estate documents, it would be a good idea to discuss the concept of a “Cyber will” with your attorney. You should consider including provisions in your wills, powers of attorney, and revocable living trusts that authorize your executors access to your online accounts. Or you may want to consider one of the services such as PasswordBox or SecureSafe to help with this. It can save your heirs many hours of toil and trouble and help ensure that your valuable digital assets aren’t just locked in cyberspace forever without access by your loved ones.
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.
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.
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.
“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”.
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.
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”.
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.”
Presented at SXSW 2009 at the core conversation “Who Will Check My Email After I Die?” The general process that we recommend is to list your assets, define your wishes, choose someone to execute your wishes, and provide access and control to that person. Consider creating a spread sheet that lists your assets, defines your wishes, and contains access to those accounts.
The List Your Assets section will discuss your digital possessions: photographs, videos, writing, and intellectual property that you want distributed after your death. The Define Your Wishes section will talk about how to specify what happens to your assets upon your death. The Choose a Digital Executor section will talk about how to choose someone to help execute your wishes. The Grant Access section will talk about making sure that the people that survive you will be able to access digital accounts and services. Finally the Services section contains a list of services that can help you.
Note: This is not intended to be a legally binding document. It is intended to be guides to help you better prepare yourself and your loved ones in the event of your death.
Laws that govern digital assets are in their infancy. What you need to know now is that data is governed many different ways and control and “ownership” of that content changes from state to state and from service to service. Currently control over your content is largely a matter of access and the terms of service.
List Your Assets
Many of us are creating a body of online content that will outlive us. Some of it will be valuable to your family and friends for either personal or monetary reasons. Some of it may be interesting to the people that will consider you their ancestor. Some of it will be complete rubbish.
The first step is to define your assets
One of the main challenges with managing your online content is the very notion of “ownership” itself. Additionally, there needs to be a separation between the communication medium and the content. You don’t own the email address (since the domain is only leased), but you DO own the content of your emails.
Many online assets are already governed by a “Terms of Service” (TOS). Content such as music may be strictly governed by Digital Rights agreements. Content uploaded into photo, video and social sites will likely be governed by a TOS. Blogs may or may not be governed. We suggest that you read the terms of service at each site and service that you use.
Commercial services that store your content need to be considered. Domain names are leased, not owned, and will be lost unless renewed. Hosting is a paid-for service that terminates after prepayment ends, often with the deletion of all data.
You will need to learn what you “own” and what your rights are before you can begin to give that content to your survivors. Additionally, you may want to create some communiques to your friends for distribution after your death. There are several forms that this could take. For example, you could:
send a batch of pre-created emails
post or send videos to friends
post messages to blogs and social networks
Define Your Wishes
Once you have defined what your assets are, you need to define what you want to do with each asset after your death. Archive it? Delete it? Give it to someone specific? While estate law varies from place to place, our culture seems to consider a person’s will as the definitive place where you define what happens to your assets after you die. We recommend that you discuss these assets with your lawyer when you are creating or modifying your will. Permanently archiving data is something that is still difficult to do. Expect to see services that offer this in the future, but currently there is nothing that we have found to do this.
Also, list content that you do not want archived and explicitly state that you want it deleted.
Choose a Digital Executor
You may benefit from naming someone your “digital executor.” This is especially important if you are responsible for the digital technology for other people (parents, spouses, children) who are less technically savvy. The myriad of accounts, usernames, emails, and passwords can complicate your survivors lives and shut down their connectivity and ability to communicate on the Web.
Even though the law does not recognize and formalize this position, it may be helpful to name someone and have them agree to help your dependents untangle the assets during the transition following your death. This person can also go through your asset list and execute your wishes, archiving, closing accounts, and deleting data as your wishes state.
Access to online accounts and services is of critical importance to each of us and our families. Unfortunately there are no formal or universal laws that govern online data. What we do know is that access provides control.
If a trusted person has access to your Facebook account after your death, then they can control what happens to the account. Also, a lot of content that you may consider to be yours is actually “owned” by the service or network that you post it on. Be aware that your content may be deleted once the host organization learns of your death. If you want the content archived after your death, you may need to give someone full access to the account.
The following are critical when addressing access to digital accounts and services:
1. give access to your survivors so that their digital lives are not held for ransom due to lack of access to shared accounts and services
2. give your executor or survivors the ability to carry out your wishes
Your legal will is a public document and is therefore not an appropriate place to store access to your online accounts and services. Additionally, laws concerning access to digital accounts vary from state to state. Some states do not recognize digital assets as part of a will. This forces us to find mechanisms that will give our survivors the access and control they need.
There are several approaches that you can take and several services that you can pay for to help with this issue. The approaches range from lo-fi to high tech, but whichever you choose, you must make sure that the basics are covered.
Create a centralized list/spreadsheet. Start by listing your accounts, such as:
finance and banking
bill pay services
online tools (e.g. Google Docs)
and many more
For each account, you will want to store the following items:
if a commercial account, specify how often the service is paid for
Many online services link to offline elements in your life. Bill pay services may keep your electric bill paid and your lights on. Mortgages are often paid for online. Make sure to specify the account number of these services so that your lights stay on and the bills get paid.