Digital Files After Death, What Happens to Your Digital Legacy?

Have You Completed Your Client’s Digital Estate Plan?

I’m sure you are comfortable that your clients’ estate plans are up to date. But have you reviewed your client’s digital estate plan? What is a digital estate plan? It’s a plan for the disposition of all your clients internet accounts once he or she is deceased

Experts have estimated that the average adult with access to the internet has more than 25 internet accounts! In the past, we kept albums full of snapshots, vinyl records and shoeboxes full of correspondence. Now our photos are all on Flickr and IPhoto, our music is downloaded from ITunes and our correspondence is email via Yahoo or Google.

And probably more important than that, a lot of your clients bank and investment accounts may be entirely online.!

And what happens if your client dies? Who has access to these internet accounts? And if they want those accounts taken off the internet how do they do it? You may discover that it is more difficult than you think to access their accounts or erase them from the internet

The family of Ricky Rash, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2011, discovered how difficult it was to recover information from their deceased son’s internet account. In an effort to understand why he had taken his own life, they requested but were refused access to his Facebook account. Facebook claimed that according to the Stored Communications Act of 1986 – the federal law that governs the protection of a person’s electronic data – even the account of a minor is protected from access by his parents or anyone else.  Other sites and providers interpret the legislation this way, making access all but impossible.

There are only five states that have taken any steps to help recover the internet data of a deceased person—Indiana, Idaho and Oklahoma legislation covers social media and blogging accounts, while Connecticut and Rhode Island legislation covers only email.

What does this mean for your clients? It is critical that they create a digital estate plan.The listing of internet accounts needs to be more comprehensive than I originally recommended. Information must include:

  • the name of the account
  • the contents of the account
  • the URL address
  • username
  • password
  • instructions for the disposition of the account including the person to oversee such disposition.
Digital planning
Digital planning

There is a whole new industry that has been created to service your clients’ digital estate , a new digital estate planning service. Your clients can create an account and then enter their user names, passwords and wishes for each of their digital assets. They can specify an heir for each account; Legacy Locker will provide heirs with information after the account holder’s death is verified.

There are also online memorial services to celebrate your client’s life. These services enable your clients to create their own memorials before they pass away. Facebook and Twitter also offer these services for family members.

The importance of having a digital estate plan will increase as more and more of our assets (and access to assets) are online. Gradually laws will evolve to give family members access to deceased loved ones’ accounts. It is important to prepare your clients for the disposition of their digital assets now so that family members will not be unpleasantly surprised when they attempt to uncover them.

If you want to explore digital estate planning in more detail feel free to wander around.

Identity Theft Safeguard

What Does Managing a Loved One’s Digital Legacy Look Like?

With digital privacy in the media spotlight and digital estate planning resources entering our mainstream consciousness, many of us have been inspired to think about the end of life and our online selves. And we should. Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users die each year, the average American believes that she has almost $55,000 worth of digital assets, though most of us — 70 percent — don’t even have a will, and few states have laws governing what happens to our internet accounts when we die. The sheer magnitude of our digital lives can overwhelm us into inaction, thus we need real life inspiration. What does managing a loved one’s digital legacy really look like?

Digital planning
Digital planning

Meet Courtney.* She represents the average family caregiver: 34 years old, a full-time nurse, mother to a pre-teen daughter, with a half-brother who lives several states away and a younger brother in the military. Like many Americans, she lives on-line, utilizing at least 25 password-protected sites on different computers and a smart phone, where she stores and shares the vulnerable, mundane, and whimsical in her life while connecting to family and friends. Before her mother’s illness, she had thought little of her own digital assets, let alone those of anyone else. When she joined the one-third of the US population who provides care for an ill, disabled, or aged person — two thirds of whom are women, shepherding her terminally ill mother’s online presence in life and after her death became very important. We use Courtney’s story to give us a glimpse into the questions, tasks, unexpected dilemmas, and benefits that await us in caring and grieving in the digital age.

The news that her 58-year-old mother faced terminal cancer shocked Courtney and propelled her into caregiving action. Drawing on her nursing background and love of organization, Courtney created spreadsheets to track her mother’s medications and the signs and symptoms of her disease. She and her mother searched disease progression and treatment options on-line, making lists of questions for her doctors and finding support groups. Courtney also began a private blog, tracing her mother’s stays in the hospital, and she treasures pictures stored on her phone of her mother’s last Halloween, hospitalized but still trick-or-treating at the nurses’ station.

As her mother’s condition declined, Courtney realized that her own comfort level with sharing her personal story through digital media and her mother’s were different, and her mother’s wishes took precedent over her own. For example, she considered using a caregiving site likeCaringBridge to help her mobilize support, but her mother’s wishes for a high level of privacy during her illness meant private e-mail messages and texting were best. Before her mother’s illness, Courtney shared her life’s ups and downs regularly on Facebook and Twitter, but now she tried to follow general digital etiquette advice as best she could, speaking only from her perspective as a daughter, refraining from telling her mother’s story without her permission. Most of the time, though, she found herself too exhausted to share anything and used Facebook to unwind, living vicariously through the pictures, status updates, and tweets of her friends.

Courtney soon realized that she did not know what digital accounts her mother had, let alone what she would want done with them in the future. On one of her mother’s stronger days, they sat down to begin sorting through her digital life together. Clicking through her mother’s Shutterfly, Pinterest, ITunes and Facebook accounts became an opportunity for reminiscing. Because most digital accounts are non-transferrable, they decided what material needed to be saved to her computer’s hard drive, which accounts to close, and which accounts to leave active, like her Facebook page which she still enjoyed using to keep up on her distant grandkids and childhood friends.

Because of her mother’s wishes for privacy, Courtney was surprised when her phone began buzzing non-stop soon after her mother died:

It was weird, because I’d only told a few people that she was dying. I learned that a family friend had been posting detailed updates about my mother’s last moments, and never checked with us about whether we wanted privacy and time. I was very hurt by that. I just felt like the world needed to stop.

Upset that her brothers might learn of their mom’s death on Facebook and not from their sister, she called them immediately. For several days, Courtney tried logging in to her social media accounts, but seeing her mother referred to in the past tense overwhelmed her. She wanted to scream to her well-meaning friends, “I am not ready for my mother to be a “was” yet!” Courtney turned off her phone and asked her best friend to become her family’s informal digital proxy by posting updates from the family on Courtney’s Facebook page, including logistical information about the funeral service and burial. In turn, her friend shared with Courtney the many appreciative comments about her mother’s life from social media sites and from the on-line guest book for her mother’s obituary.

Inevitably, time passed, and Courtney began the long journey of grief, incorporating the death of her mother into her own life story, gaining narrative resilience word by word, click by click. Through Facebook, she gained access to memories and stories from the geographically dispersed group of her mom’s friends, even learning from them how much her mom appreciated the sacrifices she had made to care for her. She still views her mom’s Pinterest board, savoring those unique ideas and dreams. Courtney and her brothers have committed to weekly Skype dates, where they check in and stay connected as they each grieve their mom in their own ways. They have already taken the step of memorializing their mother’s Facebook page, mostly to have closure and to ensure her privacy will be protected.

Courtney’s story reminds us that even if we personally plan for the management and bequeathal of our digital assets and story, a trusted loved one will be the one to carry out our wishes. Some families could benefit from legal counsel, but much can be done informally, as we saw with Courtney’s family. The critical first step is recognizing how digital assets can both provide support and — paradoxically — overwhelm without careful management. The next step is deciding how best to use those assets.

Like Courtney, daughters will most likely be the ones to initiate the conversation, but not all of us will have the luxury of time and ability to talk about what we wish. The time to plan for our digital legacy, both assets and story, is now. Far surpassing any monetary value, our digital narrative assets hold tremendous sentimental value for those who will find comfort and meaning from our cloud of digital witnesses.

*Courtney’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. She represents one of the Gen X interview cohort interviewed by Amy Ziettlow and Elizabeth Marquardt for a forthcoming book on 21st century caregiving and grief.

Learn How to Preserve Your Data with Take Control of Your Digital Legacy

US digital legacy laws in 2013

New Hampshire recently gave some thoughts about what happens to your facebook page when you die. More precisely, legislation is being changed so that an estate executor would be in a position to get a hold on the different social networks, emails, … after the death of the owner – which is something that is not the custom today.

Peter Sullivan is the State Rep. who started the movement of digital estate planning in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which accepted this bill 222 to 128. The goal of these legislation is namely to give a better control of the situation to the persons who just suffered from a loss.

The other states so far are Rhode Island, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Indiana. The first and the second were the first states to introduce a control of digital legacy, but at the same time only applied on a limited number of services. Oklahoma was supported by a state legislator, Ryan Kiesel. Kiesel helped draft the texts, but according to his own advice, the issue must be addressed to by the federal government.


Let’s have a quick look at the different states and statuses. Here are attached links to the different texts concerning the current laws (as of beginning of 2013).


Rhode Island: The legislation simply allows an executor to access the accounts of emails of the departed.



Connecticut : The same applies – and still the question of social networks is not raised.



Indiana: The executor can be granted access to “information being stored online”.



Okhlahoma: The text gives the executor (or an estate administrator) the right to be granted the access to emails, as well as social networks, accounts.



Idaho: The Idaho text allows the executor to take over and control the account of the decedent, including the Facebook, Twitter, as well as any email provider. The major difference resides in the fact that the executor can resume the use of the account, even on a posthumous base.



What is Digital Estate Planning and Why Do I Need it?

Eradicating Memories – Corporate Responsibility of Digital Legacy

6 year old Jennifer Atkins was just like any other teenager; she liked to use email, faceebook, twitter, tumblr, and blog. She was taking the fullest advantage of the digital age. What set Jennifer apart from other teenage girls was that she was battling a hard war against a disease since she was 12. Jennifer not only discussed her life as a cancer patient – the triumphs, defeats, but also tried to be a normal teenager interacting with friends and family over the internet. The story of Jennifer does not end happily as she passed away in November.

With her passing left her family with much sorrow and anguish, but they tried to move forward and find relief from Jennifer herself. The family had hired a computer expert to use Jennifer’s laptop to find all her passwords so they could relive the life of their family member. Once the computer expert had successfully gotten access to the computer and passwords Jennifer is family began exploring their loved one is life. They found poems, inspirational messages and even some deep and disturbing information. Yet for the family this was more peaceful and a way to never let go of their loved one.
Unfortunately for Jennifer is family the networks that Jennifer had used to communicate and leave the messages they read began to catch wind of what they were doing. Thus beginning the slow process of shutting down Jennifer is accounts, and killing any memories of Jennifer that the family had left.

The issue, sites such as facebook, tumblr, twitter, yahoo, and blog sites had issues with what the family was doing as it went against their terms of services. These sites are very conscious of what new and prospective users might think. If new users thought that these sites could give families access to personal files they may shy away. This might be especially true to people who are estranged from their family. Facebook does give you the option to close accounts down or turn a decease person is page into a memory page (as long as no one logs into the person is account). Yahoo on the other hand will terminate and delete files in their new term user agreement – anyone signing up for yahoo agrees that once dead their account will be deleted.

It is this corporate need to stay protected that caused Jennifer’s family to lose the remaining memories of their daughter. No matter what Jennifer might have wanted, could not matter because the terms of services now days are focused to stop anyone, including families from getting access. Jennifer is family may never getting to know her daughters final thoughts beyond what they had little time to read. This just goes to leave the question, do you have access to your own digital legacy when you sign up for third party sites and are you ready to lose it all and leave nothing for your family if you die? 

Clear rules needed for managing digital afterlife

Do an online cartography

First of all, you can use the checklist provided in the bonus part of this ebook. The list is obviously non exhaustive, and your specific interests may not be covered there. However, feel free to use it to map a first version of your digital footprint.

Another thing is that with different personalities, you may have more than one account for each service provider. Your professional twitter account can be different from your personal. be sure that your different lives do not overlap one another. It can be professional, personal, … you may want to respect the privacy of different alter egos even after your departure.

Ok, you have used the list. There’s another way to check the accounts you have, but may have forgotten. You know, the digital cluster you do have spread everywhere online. A simple way to identify the clutter you have forgotten (remember those accounts and goods, it may be a good idea to think of the pertinence of keeping them online) is to go to your favorite search engine, and to locate your email,

With only this step of listing your accounts with passwords, you can take less than an hour to avoid lots of frustration and questions for your beneficiaries. And I’m not talking about the hassle of going to the tribunal to get the documents to grant the access to your accounts, depending on the service providers policies. The more technology develops, the more services are going to be used. It means that both assets and accounts will grow in numbers and size.