As I have previously discussed, even people who believe they have a comprehensive estate plan may have overlooked what happens to their digital assets when they die. The idea is to address digital assets in your existing estate plan. Attorney coach, James Lamm, is teaching attorneys how to integrate specifics of digital estate planning.
Many people possess digital assets that may be of great value to them. However, the value of web domains, photos, videos, email, and social-media accounts may be lost if the owner does not take proper legal steps ahead of time. Digital estate planning is more complicated than traditional estate planning because the owner of assets is tasked with making sure to leave access to the heir. However, these sites may be password protected, encrypted, and governed by privacy laws. Lamm suggests some first steps that would help in the digital estate -planning process.
Go through a test run and ask yourself if you were incapacitated today would your loved ones be able to gain access to your digital assets? Who would you want to have access?
Keep a record of all of the things in your digital inventory with the user name and passwords.
The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz
The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz
A soon-to-be-released science fiction movie, Transcendence, features Johnny Depp as a scientist who becomes immortalised as a digital entity – an event that is referred to by many as the Singularity. This is still rather far from reality, of course, but it did get me thinking about death and what happens to ‘our’ data – all those Facebook chats, Instagram photos and so on. I’m talking about the digital hereafter.
Your digital persona
It was around the turn of the millennium when I first started using the internet seriously (by which I mean how much time and energy I spent on the internet, not what I used it for). Back then, I spent my time online divided between MySpace, and plenty of forums. I certainly wasn’t thinking about a data backlog, or what would happen when I die. But as more and more of my life moved online, this has come to my attention as something not too many people think about. I don’t actually know, but I would guess that I have a profile at well over 200 websites, including social media sites, forums, retail and financial services, and any number of arbitrary web-apps that required me to sign up to use them just once.
My point is, as the internet has grown we have strewn our personal data far and wide across numerous websites, with little further thought for that data, sequestered in servers across the world. And in so doing, we have created a kind of avatar – a nebulous collection of data points in the cloud, that together makes up an online persona.
Your data after you die
Google, Facebook, and Twitter all have strategies to deal with accounts of the deceased – Facebook will ‘memorialise’ a profile if a family member can confirm the death of that person. This turns the profile of the deceased into a public memorial page, which won’t show status updates but still allows loved ones to post messages. Twitter just locks your information down, while Google has what they call the Inactive Account Manager – after a defined period of inactivity, Google will transfer your data to a trusted contact and/or shut down your account. In general, it seems that the data will be made available to loved ones (or the courts) if absolutely necessary. Several companies have positioned themselves as managers of you digital legacy – covered in this blogpost. For a more in-depth discussion of digital estate planning, see this NY Times article published last year.
Now for some more outlandish options for the digital afterlife. Several companies have caught on to this opportunity, and are offering to immortalise your digital persona for posterity. Eterni.me promises to create a digital version of the deceased, which will continue to post status updates and send messages. The company will parse your data to create an virtual ‘you’ based on your likes, browsing history and previous social media messages. LivesOn is another such project, which promises to keep tweeting for you after you die. With taglines like ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting. Welcome to your social afterlife.’ (LivesOn) or the frankly misleading ‘Simply Become Immortal’ (Eterni.me), these services are not for everybody. Personally, I find the idea of a dead loved one tweeting something inane rather distasteful, and I would be downright upset if a digital ghost started messaging me about the good times we had back when they were alive.
Corporates aren’t the only ones thinking quite seriously about this stuff – there is a website, The Digital Beyond, which has been started to discuss and document these issues. The owners of the site have also written a bookdiscussing one’s options for curating the digital remains of a loved one. Academia is getting in on the act, too:researchers in the UK are studying how Western public mourning practices are changing. They document massive growth in online mourning rituals, such as the aforementioned memorial pages on Facebook, blogs dedicated to the memory of loved ones, and so on.
Another way of dealing with digital remains
I would like to consider another aspect of this discussion, one which I have not seen discussed much: the value of that data as a public resource. Data has become the unofficial second currency of business in the 21st century – just look at mobile developers. They run at a loss for years, until someone will buy their captive audience from them as data for the great online advertising machine. As it stands, the digital remnants of a life belong to the company that owned that data to begin with. But I have a alternative suggestion, which would be massively useful if implemented correctly. What if, after a reasonable mourning period (call it five years to be safe), all of that data was parsed, anonymised, and made publicly available, for free? Think of the wealth of data that would represent, over the next few decades, or even centuries. Big Data is an overhyped topic right now, but we are already seeing it’s mark across the world. Think of the complex modelling and forecasting that would be possible. Think of the boost to academia, industry, commerce, financial services and even sport. And applied to humanitarian work in health or the environment, it would quite literally change the world.
The May 2013 issue of the Internet Law Researcher newsletter (which is available to members of the Duke Law community through Westlaw‘s GLILR database) rounds up a bibliography of legislation and articles related to digital asset estate planning. To locate the article in Westlaw Classic or WestlawNext, use the citation 18 No. 5 Internet L. Researcher 1.
Planning for death has always been an uncomfortable and difficult topic for most people, and the growth of social media and other online accounts has added a new layer of complexity to sorting out the affairs of the recently deceased. Author Ken Kozlowski describes the current situation as “a big mess” in which “the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) [is] being cited as a reason for services such as Facebook to withhold access to deceased individuals’ accounts, passwords, stored photos, etc.” Five states have passed legislation related to control of deceased individuals’ online accounts, and undoubtedly more state legislatures will follow suit.
The Internet Law Researcher article recommends a number of publications from legal and mainstream sources, including the recent law review student note by Maria Perrone, What Happens When We Die: Estate Planning of Digital Assets, and the blog Digital Passing. The recommended resources offer tips for developing a plan to handle digital assets after death, and serve as a good supplement to the Goodson Law Library’s collection of estate planning guides, most of which do not discuss digital assets in detail.
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.
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.
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.