In the event of your death or disability, what happens to all of your online accounts and the data stored on your electronic devices? Find out how to include digital assets in your estate plan. Your estate plan needs to cover any digital assets you might own. Just as […]
My dad is one of those people who refuses to touch a computer and loves his old flip-style “dumb” phone. If you’re like my dad, you can probably skip this article. But if you’re someone who uses a computer, smartphone, or any other type of electronic device, please read on.
When thinking about estate planning, it’s easy to overlook your digital life. By addressing this issue now, you can help your family after you’re gone by allowing them to more easily locate contact information for your friends and colleagues, locate and access your online accounts so that they can be closed and any property in them distributed appropriately, and locate any important information (such as family photographs) that you have stored on digital devices.
Putting a plan in place to deal with all of your digital devices and accounts can feel overwhelming. To help make it a bit more manageable, I suggest breaking the task into the following steps: (1) make a list; (2) decide what you want done; (3) choose someone to be in charge; and (4) store this information securely.
Make a list – For most people, this will be the most time-consuming step. One way to attack this is to divide your digital assets into categories. For example, categories could include hardware (like computers, external hard drives, flash/thumb/USB drives, tablets, smartphones, e-readers, digital music players, and digital cameras), online financial accounts (like banking, credit cards, PayPal, frequent flier miles, insurance, retirement plans, stocks, and brokerage accounts), email and social media (like Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn), online storage sites (like iCloud, DropBox, or Flickr), and any websites/URLs or blogs you own or manage. At a minimum, include all user names and passwords. Also, it’s a good idea to list any recurring payments you have set up through your bank accounts or credit cards, like utilities, insurance premiums, tuition, or loans. Be sure to update your list as you add or delete accounts or change passwords.
Decide what you want done – Once you know what your digital assets are, you can decide how you want to deal with them. First, as you make your list, if you find that you have any accounts that you don’t use any more, close or delete them now so your loved ones have less to deal with later. Next, for your online accounts, especially social media, check the policies for each site. Some sites, like Facebook, Google, and Instagram, give you options for how you’d like your account handled after your death. For many other sites, the only option is for someone to contact the site after your death. For digital photos or other electronic files on your devices (like original music or videos, recipes, or letters or stories you’ve written), write a letter of instruction for how these assets should be handled and keep the letter with your will and other estate planning documents.
Choose someone to be in charge – If you have a will (and if you don’t, get one!), you’ve already chosen someone to be in charge of managing your estate after you die. In Indiana, this person is called your personal representative. However, your personal representative might not be digitally savvy (like my dad) and therefore not the best person to handle your digital estate, so you may want to name someone else to deal with your digital assets. Also, although Indiana law gives personal representatives some authority over digital accounts, some companies may be reluctant to deal with anyone unless your will specifically authorizes them to access your accounts.
Store this information securely – There are many different ways that you can securely store information related to your digital assets. For example, there are dozens of “password manager” and “online vault” websites and smartphone apps that will let you store your passwords. Generally how these sites/apps work is that you create one master password for the site/app that then allows you (or your digital personal representative to whom you’ve given your master password) to access your list of other passwords. The websites/apps can vary greatly in regards to features and price (there are some good free ones), so be sure to do your research if you go this route. If you prefer something more traditional, options such as a safe deposit box, home safe, or memory stick could work. Just be sure that your digital personal representative knows where the information is and has access to it. Whatever method you choose, don’t put this information in your will, which will become a publicly accessible document after your death.
As with most estate planning issues, the challenges and complexities of creating a plan for digital assets vary with each person’s individual needs and circumstances. If you haven’t already made a plan for how your digital assets should be handled after your death, consider contacting an estate planning attorney to discuss your situation in detail. It’s never too soon to start planning.
Carrie S. Cloud is an attorney practicing at 146 E US Highway 52, Rushville, Indiana 46173. The information in this article is for general informational purposes only and is not legal advice.
Who Gets Your Data After Death? Accessing and Managing a Deceased Person’s Digital Remnants
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When a loved one passes away, dealing with the mundane little things is an unfortunate, and often headache-inducing, necessity. Canceling a deceased loved one’s bills and magazine subscriptions, dealing with their financial situations… And now you have to worry about your loved one’s digital affairs as well. You have to account for everything from their email inboxes to their Facebook account, and the data they left behind. What do you do with it all?
There aren’t many clear or easy ways for people to transfer their digital assets after they’ve passed on. This includes things like their iTunes media library, or even just the credentials needed to access the departed’s various online accounts. Some people have started to wonder if they should include things like passwords to their multitudes of online accounts in their wills.
It can be difficult to successfully petition the likes of Google or Apple to release information on users who have passed away. This is often true regardless of your relation to the deceased. And social media platforms keep a tight leash on their users’ login credentials, even after they’ve passed on.
Accessing Data From a Deceased Loved One’s Electronic Devices
On occasion, we here at Gillware receive calls from people looking to have data retrieved from a phone or tablet belonging to a deceased loved one. Usually all they’re looking for are photos and contacts belonging to the deceased—photos to remember them by, and friends to notify of their passing. Sometimes this data is very difficult to get a hold of outside of a data recovery lab. This is especially true when dealing with mobile devices.
When you die, all of your data stays right where you left it. Making sure your loved ones can access the data you leave behind isn’t something many of us plan for. This can leave your loved ones in a bind when you pass away and they have to deal with your affairs—both analog and digital. The trend in data storage, especially among mobile devices, is encryption and total data security. If you don’t plan ahead, accessing the data you’ve left behind on your phone or synced with your Apple or Google account can prove difficult, or even nigh-impossible, for your loved ones.
Below are some tips for retrieving data from mobile devices and computers after their users have passed on. If you cannot retrieve the data on your own or with help from Apple or Google, though, the experts at Gillware Data Recovery and Gillware Digital Forensics can help. Our data recovery and forensic engineers have often assisted people in retrieving data from phones, computers, and other mobile devices belonging to deceased loved ones. In these situations, the data we recover often helps bring much-needed closure to the deceased person’s grieving family and friends.
Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s iPhone
Apple iPhones are, unfortunately, notoriously difficult to access in the event of their owners’ passing. Unlike many Android phone models, iPhones do not have (often unencrypted) microSD cards you can take out of the phone. All of the data resides within the encrypted flash memory chip built into the device. You can’t pick the lock or bust down the door, metaphorically speaking. Either you know the passcode that gives you access to the data on the phone, or you don’t. Your iPhone does not send your passcode directly to some giant password database at Apple HQ. Only the user—and anybody else they may have told—knows their own iPhone passcode.
Apple’s data protection policies, especially their encryption policies, are a harsh mistress. You cannot appeal to an iPhone’s reason or emotion, because it has none. Apple iPhones are designed to be virtually unhackable without taking the most extreme of measures. Each successive model is more unhackable than the last. That’s just the way these things are—and even appealing to Tim Cook can’t change that.
However, while Apple can’t help you access your loved one’s iPhone after they’ve passed on, their Apple ID, iTunes, and iCloud accounts present a much less insurmountable goal. These accounts often hold data that is synchronized between the owner’s iPhone, iPad, and other devices. Access to these accounts is often easier to gain than access to the iPhone itself.
To gain access to a deceased loved one’s Apple ID, iTunes, or iCloud account information, you can contact Apple Support. Apple Support will ask for identifying information, such as a death certificate of the user, and proof of relation. Apple Support does, of course, often err on the side of caution when it comes to releasing information on another user’s account.
Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s Android Mobile Phone
If your deceased loved one owned an Android mobile phone, your options are less limited. Depending on the model of phone and version of the Android operating system, you may have some luck using one of these methods to bypass the passcode or pattern lock.
Many Android mobile phones also store some of the user’s data on a small microSD card inside the phone. You can easily remove the microSD card, place it into an adapter, and plug it into a computer, even if you can’t access the phone it belonged to. Not all mobile phones come with a microSD card preinstalled, however. In addition, how much data the user had on the SD card depends on how the user had their phone set up.
Owners of Android phones often have their phones tied to a Google account. In these cases, some data on the phone, such as contacts or photos, may be synchronized with the user’s Google Drive. Like with Apple, you can contact Google to access your loved one’s account. In the interest of protecting user privacy, Google asks for plenty of identifying information about both you and your loved one before they decide whether to comply with your request.
Some of the information Google requires includes your name, mailing address, email address, the Google account username or Gmail address of your loved one, their death certificate, and an example of an email conversation between you and the deceased.
Requesting data from a loved one’s Google account is a two-part system. Google will review your request and may request a court order before moving onto the second step.
Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s Home Computer
Unlike with mobile phones, getting into your loved one’s computer to recover the files and documents they left behind proves much less of a challenge. Even if you don’t know the password to their user account, accessing the data on a computer is downright trivial. You can access their files from another account on the PC. Or, if you don’t have one, you can remove the hard drive from the PC and view the data on it on another computer using a hard disk drive enclosure or USB adapter cable. These methods all work, unless the data on the drive has been encrypted. When you encrypt data, it is impossible to make sense of it without the proper password to unlock the data (of course, if encryption were easy to circumvent, there wouldn’t be much point in having it).
This covers most of the data a deceased loved one will have lying on their physical devices once they pass on. But what about everything they’ve left behind on the Internet? What happens to it? Can you get to it?
What Happens to Your Social Media Accounts After Death?
The people using social media to stay abreast of current events, share things that are happening in their lives, and keep in touch with their families and friends number in the billions. Between Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and various other platforms, people are accruing social media presences at an accelerating rate. When a user stops using an account, it just stays there. After all, your social media account won’t know when you’re dead. It can be unsettling, to say the least, to know that a family member or friend’s social media accounts are floating around through cyberspace as if nothing has changed.
All social media platforms highly value the privacy of their users, even their deceased users. As seen above with Google and Apple, the platforms holding onto your data, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., are reticent to release it to just anybody. (And in this case, family and friends count as “just anybody”.)
In general, social media platforms have no interest in providing other people with the proverbial keys to the kingdom, even after a user has passed on. However, social media platforms do have protocol in place regarding deceased users and what can be done to their accounts. Their protocol tends to be stringent, as many platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have fallen victim to celebrity death hoaxes in the past.
Some social media platforms have policies in place allowing people who were close to a deceased user to make limited decisions about what happens to their account after they have passed on. These include things like Facebook and Instagram’s memorial accounts. For the most part, though, social media platforms simply lock or deactivate the deceased user’s account.
Setting Up a Facebook Memorial Account
Facebook’s policy regarding deceased users allows for deceased users’ accounts to be transformed into “memorial accounts.” The deceased user is not treated as an “active” user and does not appear on potential friends lists for other users and other public spaces, although anything the user shared remains in place. Friends and family of the deceased user can post on the wall of the deceased and share memories of them.
Nobody can log into the deceased user’s account or alter any information on their account. However, if the user had defined a legacy contact prior to their passing, the legacy contact is allowed limited access to moderate the memorial account, and can request to download a copy of the account. However, they will not have access to the user’s private messages or be able to add or remove friends.
Only the user themselves can designate a legacy contact. In your Facebook account settings, you can choose a legacy contact, arrange to have your account memorialized after your death, or request to have your account deleted after you pass on.
A verified immediate family member on Facebook can request to have their departed loved one’s account memorialized or permanently deleted by contacting Facebook Support.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has a similar policy, with memorial accounts of its own for deceased users. However, unlike Facebook, users cannot arrange to have their account memorialized before they pass on. Instead, a relative of the deceased user must contact Instagram and provide a copy of the user’s death certificate.
Deactivating a Deceased User’s Twitter Account
Unlike Facebook, Twitter has no options for “memorializing” deceased users’ accounts. But like Facebook, Twitter refuses to share login credentials for a deceased user’s account, so nobody can post on their behalf or read through their direct messages. Twitter will deactivate the account, which puts it in a queue for permanent deletion.
If you have login credentials to the deceased user’s account, you can simply deactivate their account just as easily as you would your own. If you do not know their credentials, though, you must go through Twitter Support. To request the deactivation of a deceased user’s account, you must fill out Twitter Support’s Privacy Form. To prevent abuse of this feature, Twitter requires you to provide information about yourself and the user. This includes a copy of their ID and your ID, and may include a Power of Attorney authorizing you to act on their behalf. If you meet these criteria, Twitter will honor your request to deactivate the deceased user’s account.
Removing LinkedIn Profiles for Deceased Users
Like any online account, nothing automatically happens to your LinkedIn account when you die. This can make it distressing for your loved ones, coworkers, or classmates if, after your death, LinkedIn serves up your profile to them in a “People You Might Want to Link To” email.
LinkedIn Help requires a friend or relative of the deceased to go through a rather involved process to close a LinkedIn profile for a deceased user. LinkedIn allows anybody to submit the form to remove the profile of a user who has passed on. However, since LinkedIn asks for you to state your relationship to the deceased, they will likely deny any request made by someone who is not close to the deceased.
Deactivating a Deceased Google User’s Account
You can request to have a deceased loved one’s Google account, including their Google+ page, Google Drive, Gmail inbox, and YouTube account, deleted by contacting Google Support. You will have to go through many of the same steps as you would when trying to access data stored on a loved one’s Google account as we discussed earlier. Google is more likely to honor a request to simply deactivate a deceased user’s account altogether than to release data from or provide access to the account. Understandably, deactivating a deceased user’s account is less of a breach of privacy than sharing their data.
Planning for the Future: Keeping Your Data Manageable and Accessible After Death
Losing a loved one is painful enough. We wish that dealing with the myriad things left behind in their absence were easier. Almost nobody likes thinking about mortality. Even fewer people relish the thought of dealing with everything their deceased loved one left behind.
Throw in our swiftly-accumulating social media accounts in the mix and things get uglier. Your grieving loved ones quickly become inundated with a flood of tiring and frustrating work as they find and deactivate the roughly half-dozen accounts the average person has today.
You can ensure that dealing with your digital affairs when you pass on doesn’t put your loved ones through unnecessary layers of bureaucracy by creating a digital estate plan.
Estate planning is an important part of making sure everything goes smoothly after you’ve shed your mortal coil. Estate planning includes writing up a Last Will and Testament, financial or health care Power of Attorney, and other documents. In the modern age, what to do with all your digital remains has to be taken into consideration as well.
A digital estate plan is, as its name suggests, a plan for your digital estate—the online data and digital documentation and belongings you’ve accumulated over the years. Your digital estate encompasses everything from digital financial records to your online accounts. Keeping your digital accounts accessible after death is part of having a good digital estate plan.
Creating a Digital Estate Plan
A digital estate plan will help your family deal with whatever you leave behind when you pass on. This includes accessing and appropriately managing your online accounts, determining whether any of your digital property has any financial value that needs to be reported, and distributing and transferring any digital assets. A digital estate plan can even keep you and your family safe from “ghosting”, or identity theft of deceased persons.
Planning your digital estate involves tallying up all of your digital records and online accounts. This includes all of your data storage hardware in addition to your online accounts. Once you’ve made a list of your digital assets, you decide what should be done with each, just as you would with your physical assets.
Some people recommend creating a separate “digital will” for your digital assets. In your will, you can appoint a digital executor. A digital executor will manage your digital estate, just like an executor manages your physical estate.
However, while Wisconsin has laws in place regarding “digital asset custodians”, not all states have legislation regarding digital estate planning. And as a result, your digital executor may not be legally recognized. Despite the legal limbo, though, appointing a digital executor can still make dealing with your estate much easier. A digital estate plan is still of great use, even if you cannot formalize it in a legally binding document.
Using Password Management Tools to Manage Your Digital Estate
We here at Gillware recommend that you store your passwords in a safe, secure place. Common choices are a locked file cabinet or a safe or safety deposit box. Only your trusted loved ones should be able to access it in the event of your death. The easiest and most convenient way to do this is with a password manager, such as KeePass.
With KeePass, you can store a digital record of all your online and device passwords in a database file. This includes anything from email, social media accounts, and streaming and data storage accounts to your smartphone’s passcode. With your password credentials in hand, your loved ones can easily deal with the digital cruft that built up over the course of your life.
Of course, this allows your loved ones to see all of the data on your accounts. You may want to exercise prudence in what login credentials you make available to your heirs.
There are many options for you to choose from to make your password database file accessible only to the right people. To make sure your loved ones can get to the file itself, leave the database on a flash drive or burn it to a CD. The next step is ensuring that only the right people have the master password to unlock the database.
Whatever you do, proactively planning your digital estate can make things much easier on your loved ones once you’ve moved on.
Keep in mind that we here at Gillware are data recovery and IT experts, not probate law experts. To plan your digital estate, discuss the matter with your estate lawyer, just as you would to plan your physical estate.
What happens to your digital property when you die? This can be a very challenging issue for your executor when settling your estate.
You can make your executor’s job easier by listing all the electronic devices and online services that you use. With a letter of direction, you can tell your executor what should happen to them after you die.
Use an address book or worksheet to alphabetically list your devices and online accounts. Then tell your executor where to find your list. User names and passwords on your inventory list are the keys to open the doors to your electronic devices and keep online accounts active.
Remember that Canada’s privacy laws make it difficult for your executor to take over the online accounts of another person. When you sign up for an online account, the terms of service agreement restricts access to the account-holder only. That means you cannot bequeath your social media account, video game account, or gambling account to a beneficiary even if they have great value.
In the U.S., many states have created laws to give an executor the right to access and manage digital assets of a dead person. No similar laws have been enacted in Canada yet. Until our laws are updated and service providers change their policies, Canadians can include clauses in their wills that give executors permission to deal with digital assets.
Your executor can browse your email messages to track down estate assets. Email messages give clues about bills to be paid. Email reminders to download T5 and T4RIF slips can lead to financial accounts. Your emails will reveal confirmations of business, gaming, streaming and shopping transactions.
Maybe you have YouTube videos or a blog that generates advertising revenue. If you are receiving thousands of dollars per month in payments from ad clicks, your executor would want to maintain that revenue stream.
Do you own a valuable domain name? Remind your executor to pay the fee to renew the registration until the domain name is sold.
Your executor should find all your electronic hardware such as smartphones, tablets or laptop computers. Keep these devices and safeguard them until data can be extracted. Once all online accounts have been closed or transferred, electronic devices can be stripped and passed along with other estate assets.
After you have died, your executor can access and delete your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts by knowing your passwords. What if the family wants continued access to their loved one’s online photos and personal messages? Social media websites will eventually take steps to protect privacy as a standard security procedure.
Facebook allows family members to either delete or “memorialize” the accounts of a deceased user. In a memorialized account, a person’s existing friends network can leave comments and photos but nobody has permission to log in or edit the account.
Music, e-books and photos
Who gets your collection of digital photos and videos in online cloud storage and social media sites after you die? Some digital assets cannot be legally bequeathed to anyone. You pay for a personal licence to use digital files, such as iTunes music and e-books. These personal rights expire when the user dies.
Even if you bequeath your iPad to a family member, you cannot bequeath the apps you have purchased and installed on your iPad.
Thieves can use a dead person’s information to create a fake identity to rack up credit card charges and apply for loans. Your executor can safeguard the estate by notifying credit agencies of the death.
Terry McBride, a member of Advocis, works with Raymond James Ltd. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Raymond James Ltd. Information is from sources believed reliable but cannot be guaranteed. This is provided for information only. We recommend that clients seek independent advice from a professional adviser on tax-related matters. Securities offered through Raymond James Ltd., member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund. Insurance services offered through Raymond James Financial Planning Ltd., not a member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund.
The Digital Legacy Association is encouraging those who work in palliative and end of life care to help patients think about and make plans for their digital assets, online accounts and electronic devices, with the launch of a new leaflet.
As part of Dying Matters Awareness Week (9 to 15 May), The Digital Legacy Association has launched a new leaflet aimed at helping individuals to get their digital affairs in order.
It encourages people to think about what they want to happen to their social media accounts (like Facebook) after their death and who, if anyone, they want to have access to their mobile phone and other electronic devices.
“As we spend more time using the internet and on electronic devices it is becoming increasingly important for us to make plans surrounding end of life that are suitable to the ways in which we live,” explained James Norris, founder of The Digital Legacy Association.
The launch of the new resource coincides with a new data released by Dying Matters today which found that 40% of British adults wouldn’t unfriend someone they know on Facebook after that person died.
The survey of 2,000 adults by ComRes also found that 26% agreed that Facebook is a good way of sharing news of a death beyond the immediate circle of family and friends, with 50% disagreeing.
Only 21% of people agreed that Facebook is the best method of sharing news of a terminal diagnosis beyond close friends and family, with 58% disagreeing.
In both cases, younger people are more likely to be comfortable sharing such news on Facebook.
“This shows how important Facebook is as a tool to remember and mourn the deceased,” said James Norris.
“That so few people would unfriend someone on Facebook after their death gives us a small indication as to the importance Facebook is providing into posterity.”
The Digital Legacy Association is a nationwide organisation that supports the general public and health and social care professionals with digital estate planning, digital legacy and bereavement.
To find out more about The Digital Legacy Association, and to download the new resource, visit the association’s website.