Online Life After Death – Digital Asset Estate Planning

Online Life After Death – Digital Asset Estate Planning

Most of us have a significant presence in the digital world whether we realize it or not.

If you were to list all your digital accounts and assets, the number would probably surprise you. You may have online accounts with banks, merchants, a brokerage firm, social media platforms, cloud storage companies, gaming sites and email providers. Perhaps you have a blog or own a number of domain names. Some items such as your digital photo collection or your Facebook log may not have a monetary value, but they may have personal meaning for your loved ones. Other items may range in value from coupon credits accrued with your favorite online retailer to a significant balance in a PayPal or even Bitcoin account. You may have thousands of frequent flyer miles, a cash-back reward balance from your credit card company, or an online trading account balance. Your online business presence may include eBay, Etsy or your own web-based company.

Whatever monetary or personal value these types of examples may possess, digital asset estate planning is essential to ensure that your online life after death is handled in an orderly manner according to your wishes.

In addition to online accounts and assets, your personal digital devices and their content should be considered as well.

Your computer or laptop as well as your tablet, e-reader, cellphone or smartphone and all manner of offline storage form part of your digital estate. These storage formats include CDs and DVDs, peripheral storage drives, and memory cards. Tangible paper records are becoming increasingly a thing of the past; for most of us, it is the digital trail we leave that tells the story of our personal, professional and financial lives.

The conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, an icon of 20th-century classical music, passed away in 1990 and left behind a memoir called Blue Ink in a password-protected computer file. He did not share the password, and so far, no one has been able to access this presumably significant work. Clarifying your wishes regarding your digital legacy is crucial to any well-formulated estate plan. You can start by providing your executor a complete digital inventory together with the necessary means of accessing it.

Digital Assets – A New Frontier

There’s more to consider, however. From a legal perspective, the status of digital assets within estate planning is a new frontier. They may fall within intellectual property, intangible assets or license categories.    While it may seem reasonable to assume that a next-of-kin could simply step in and manage or dispose of digital accounts, this is a risky endeavor. Federal and state laws designed to prevent hacking, identity theft and online fraud can inadvertently prevent loved ones or your executor from legally accessing your digital assets if you die. Many sites and account issuers allow only the primary account holder to enjoy access and can be inflexible on that point.

In Ellsworth vs. Yahoo, a 2005 legal case out of Michigan, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq was forced to seek access through the courts to his son’s Yahoo email account after Yahoo initially refused to provide it. Yahoo eventually complied with an order to produce the email records.

While the need for a court order is extreme, some platforms such as Gmail, Flickr and Twitter request a death certificate and related documents to gain access to accounts and records. Some states such as Oklahoma and Connecticut have introduced statutes designed to provide access to the deceased person’s email and social networking accounts, but comprehensive digital asset protection and disposition after death remains a complicated matter best discussed with your estate attorney.

As stated, the goal will be to identify a complete inventory, directions for access and any information necessary for your digital assets to be valued accurately. You may prefer that some records be destroyed and the accounts closed upon your death while others be willed to specific individuals. You may wish to bequeath your laptop to one person but prefer the contents be destroyed or given to a different heir. The importance of specifying your exact wishes is not to be underestimated. Our digital lives have grown and will continue to grow exponentially, and the peace of mind that estate planning affords will remain elusive until you include your digital assets in this important endeavor.

What happens to your Facebook profile when you die? [infographic]

What happens to your Facebook profile when you die? [infographic]

Three Facebook users die every minute. That’s 1.78m deceased Facebook accounts in 2011 alone. What happens to your Facebook account after you die? Is Facebook slowly turning into a digital graveyard?
It’s a strange question, and one that, perhaps, only raises more questions, not in the least: Who cares? I’m dead.

As you fill the internet with status updates, personal images and videos, it creates some new, somewhat macabre, digital dilemmas, such as:

– How do you protect your privacy after death?
– How do you maintain your digital legacy?
– Do you want to live forever online?

These are the questions that an Australian life insurance company is trying to get people to ask themselves before they pass into the great unknown.

The company, Life Insurance Finder, has published a guide on how to prepare your digital accounts for after you die, recommending, among other things, the creation of a digital will and the nomination of a digital executor.

In terms of a digital executor, the company suggests the following:

“A physical will covers your wishes for your physical self as well as your physical assets after your death. But what about your digital life? Now that we live almost as much online as we do in the physical world we need to have a plan for managing our digital deaths too. In order to carry out your digital death plan you will need to create a digital will, as well as select a trustworthy digital executor to handle arrangements for your digital assets and digital legacy once you are gone. Just remember not to put the passwords for your digital assets in your actual will as wills are made public at death.”

The company also has listed the death policies for the accounts of its users, including those of PayPal and eBay.

The guide is a fascinating read, especially the bit about “digital resurrections”:

Where do you see yourself in 100 years? We have the opportunity to be the first generation to realistically think about that question. How you are memorialised ‘After Your Final Status Update’ was the title and topic of Adam Ostrow’s presentation to the TED Global 2011 conference. The editor in chief of Mashable.com discussed the possibilities for the one billion of us around the world with social media profiles, as machine learning technology combined with the massive amounts of data we share publicly, makes it entirely possible that you could live digitally forever.

The guide explains how some companies, like That Can Be My Next Tweet and Hunch, can look into your past social networking history and use that data to post tweets or status updates in your personal style and tone, meaning you could essentially live forever online.

Texts from the dead: Post-mortem digital communication has arrived

The different types of digital assets

Why do you need to consider the becoming of your digital assets upon your passing? Just because there are more than what you actually think. If you can’t list them all, chances are that they will not be listed by someone else, and precious heritage can finally be lost for everyone. Or, if there are things that you wish were deleted, but were not, your last message may not be the one you wished for.  Inside the different assets type, you have:

Business accounts: let’s say you own an account for any business. It’s full of your clients information,  invoices and different bills. These information are critical for your business partners, colleagues or the whole team. For a doctor, it may contain the life history of your patients, with full, potentially life-saving, information.

Social media accounts: obviously, you won’t be able to communicate with your network, but the social networks do have a treasure inside: old exchanges, pictures, videos and other assets. And they can be the base of an online memorial.

Financial assets: this one is quite self-explanatory. Banks are more and more accessible via web interfaces, and may have services storing online currency, like bitcoins. And we’re not speaking about the Amazon, eBay, Paypal websites..

and last but not least:

Personal assets: can you list the totality of your services? I guess not.. Pictures, videos, emails, texts, mms, smartphone apps, … And why not computers, locked by passwords, or medical records, legal files, …