Your 20,000-song iTunes library is valuable both monetarily and as an artifact of your life, so you’d like to leave it to your children. Legally, you probably can’t. At least not yet. But, as a practical matter, you can share your online assets in a limited fashion, as long as you plan ahead.
And it’s not only your iTunes library. Do you have e-books stashed on a Kindle or Nook? Do you sell items on eBay or use PayPal? Bitcoins? A survey back in 2011 by McAfee (now Intel Security INTC, +1.52% found that Americans value their digital assets at more than $54,000 on average.
But there’s no doubt that divvying up those online assets and giving them to your heirs can be complicated.
You’re not the owner
One problem is that generally you don’t actually own the digital music and books you buy on your computer and mobile devices — you’ve only bought licenses to listen and view those products.
Also complicating matters from an estate-plan perspective: These accounts are governed by the terms-of-service agreement to which you agreed (or, more likely, clicked that box without reading) upon opening the account. Often, service providers have created those agreements to comply with federal laws that limit access to account information to authorized users.
Here are some ideas for how to share your online music, book and social-media accounts with your heirs:
The Apple iTunes terms of service agreement generally states that your license is nontransferable and will end automatically if you fail to comply with the terms of the agreement.
The agreement “doesn’t seem to contemplate a transfer of the license after death,” says Sharon Klein, the New York Metropolitan Region president of Wilmington Trust, N.A., a wealth advisory firm. “It’s silent about what happens when someone dies. It just says you can’t transfer it, period.”
Until the language changes — if it changes — one option some might employ is to give their heirs the access information for their iTunes account. Just be aware: Doing so may be a violation of the terms of service. If your heirs live with you, consider setting up the “Home Sharing” tool. Read more here.
Another option with some music files is to save them to your computer or a hard drive, and bequeath that to your heirs, but whether that will work depends on the type of music file.
Generally, you’re not going to be able to transfer your e-books to your heirs, because the service agreements usually say the license is nontransferable and e-books often are protected by digital rights management (DRM) software, so you can’t copy them.
Like with an iTunes account, if you really want someone else to be able to read your books, you might need to be willing to break the terms of service; that is, give your Kindle or Nook or e-reader login credentials to an heir, so they can read the books you’ve already purchased, at least while your account remains active. A better bet might be to give your executor the login credentials to your account so he or she can close it.
People often store their Bitcoins in a digital wallet, usually via an app on their phone or laptop. In that case, you could provide your user ID and your password to your designated heir so they can access your account.
But, while digital wallets do provide some level of security, there is the danger that hackers might access your account. To avoid that problem, it’s possible to pull your Bitcoins, which essentially consist of serial numbers, off the network and put them into a safe in your house or a bank safe-deposit box. The problem is it takes some computer savvy to do this.
For more information, read this Bitcoin Foundation guide on protecting your Bitcoins.
Also see this guide on the website Bitcoin.org (note that this is an open-source website with contributors world-wide).
If you’ve posted photos online that you want your heirs to receive, read your terms of service to see what the provisions are for an inactive account. But, it might be easier to simply make backup copies, store them in a safe place, and be sure your executor knows where to find such items.
“Maybe [your executor] can’t get access to Flickr, but if I’ve backed up all my photos on a hard drive, then it’s fine,” said Alexandra Gerson, a lawyer with Helsell Fetterman in Seattle.
Grieving families are often shocked to find they can’t gain access to their loved one’s email messages. That said, some companies will provide copies of emails to an executor, and you increase that likelihood if your estate plan includes instructions for your digital assets.
In some cases, the service provider may delete the account. For example, the terms of service for Yahoo email state that all rights to your account terminate on your death and that the data can be deleted. Read Yahoo’s policy.
That’s why it’s important to leave behind a list of your accounts, including each account’s username and password (such information should not be included in your will), plus instructions as to what you’d like done with each account (see more in instructions link above).
Google GOOG, +0.41% eased this process by offering its Inactive Account Manager. The tool lets you control how your Gmail and other Google accounts are handled after your death. You dictate who should be notified in the event your account is inactive for a specified period; you also decide whether your trusted contact should be able to download the data, or whether the account should be deleted.
Generally, social-media websites won’t give another user access to an inactive account. You could ask your digital executor to manage your accounts on your behalf; that is, you provide a list of your login credentials for each account — though this likely violates the terms of service.
If you don’t provide access to your account, here are the options available to your executor for three popular sites:
Facebook will delete an account or allow the user’s timeline to be memorialized once the company receives proof of death and proof of the relationship between the decedent and the person making the request. Read more here.