The great digital beyond

The great digital beyond

A friend recently told me of the challenge she faced sorting through her aging parents’ belongings to prepare their home for sale.

Her father had died years ago and her 94-year-old mother had been living in an assisted-care facility for more than a year. Most of the items of sentimental or personal value had already been distributed to her siblings. What remained were her parents’ personal archives — letters, photos, employment/financial/legal/health records, all tangible, physical objects that, once gone, would be gone forever.

In the internet age, personal archives are no longer limited to the tangible. In fact, much of one’s personal archives is now digital — emails, texts, photos, videos and social media accounts. And there’s a lot more content generated and stored than ever before. Some is saved on personal storage space, such as a computer hard drive. Other material lives in the cloud in services like Facebook, Google Mail and YouTube. In most cases, that content is protected by some kind of password.

So what becomes of all of that information when someone dies? Does it remain online forever? Can it be altered, deleted or downloaded, and if so, by whom? And how do these digital artifacts represent your life and legacy?

These questions inspired Evan Carroll and John Romano to create the website to address these needs and concerns. Together they wrote the book “Your Digital Afterlife” in 2011. Since that time an entire industry has emerged to help people plan for managing their digital legacy. lists dozens of such online services. Some are free while others are fee-based., for example, “answers the question, ‘What happens to all my online accounts if I get amnesia, Alzheimer’s or if I leave from this world?’ With you set future notifications to be sent to your family and beloved people or to yourself, ensuring that nothing of your digital life will be wasted (and) transfers your online property/heritage (urls, domain names, e-mail & social network accounts, etc.) to whomever you wish to continue it in the future!” You can sign up for this free service through your Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts. In short, according to its tagline, “manages your digital heritage.”

To address financial matters, consider, which describes itself as “a secure asset protection platform where you organize your important information in encrypted vaults, and …. automatically deliver it to your designated recipients on a scheduled date, or in case of your death or incapacitation.” It is a fee-based membership service with different levels of coverage and prices depending on what you want.

The rapid growth of the web has outpaced the law in the realm of the digital afterlife. It wasn’t until 2015 that the Uniform Law Commission, a nongovernment organization, created the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). It has since been adopted by 40 states and been introduced in five more this year. As its name suggests, RUFADAA “allows fiduciaries to manage digital property like computer files, web domains, and virtual currency, but restricts a fiduciary’s access to electronic communications such as email, text messages, and social media accounts unless the original user consented in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other record.”

Some online services have their own policies for providing access to a person’s account after he or she dies. Facebook allows users to designate a “Legacy Contact” who is legally permitted to enter someone’s account to post, respond to friend requests, and update profile and cover photos. The Legacy Contact may also be given the power to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information in that account. Facebook users can also simply opt to have their account permanently deleted after their death. Google offers an Inactive Account Manager feature that allows users to share parts of their account data or notify someone if they’ve been inactive for a certain period of time.

One important and often repeated piece of advice is to never put usernames and passwords for any online accounts in your will, as it becomes a public record once it is entered into a probate court file.

It is never too soon to start estate planning, whether it be for tangible assets or digital ones. It may be well worth your time to investigate the policy options of your online account services and perhaps even avail yourself of some of the many digital afterlife services available today.

Cerise Oberman, SUNY Distinguished Librarian Emeritus, retired as dean of Library & Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh. She can be reached at Tim Hartnett is associate librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, Reach him at

• Digital Assets: Reshaping the way you think about them

Digital Assets: Reshaping the way you think about them

When it comes to, wills, power of attorney and all that goes into crafting your estate plan, you should include a discussion about digital assets with your attorney.

Our lives today are primarily conducted online – making digital assets part of our daily lives. Yet many of us fail to recognize that the value of digital assets are as important as tangible assets. McAffee, in 2014, conducted research that disclosed digital devices hold an estimated value of $35,000. Topping the list of stored items are personal memories, photos, and videos which was estimated at over $17,000.

As we store an increasing amount of assets and accounts online, their emotional and financial value increases. If you have not included digital asset information along with your estate planning documents, your beneficiaries may not be able to access your accounts, particularly if they do not have passwords and related information. Additionally, problems arise with social media accounts that are covered by TOS (terms of service) agreements which prohibit an accountholder from disclosing information to third parties, or allowing them to access your account, and from transferring the account. Laws governing digital accounts vary state-by-state and all too often beneficiaries are locked out of their loved ones’ social media and other accounts.

What is a Digital Asset?

Digital asset refers to any content a person owns in digital form i.e., anything that you access online, your computer, a mobile device, or that is stored in the cloud. The list of digital assets is extensive and tends to fall into several categories including:

  • Passwords: A strong password can secure the information on your computers,

high-tech items and shopping accounts; unfortunately, people are not as careful in selecting passwords making it easy for hackers to access accounts. Google provides many ideas on how to choose hard-to-hack passwords

  • Social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram etc., most of which have exclusive access via passwords and relevant security words. They are subject to terms of service contracts established by social media outlets – therein lies the issue when families try to access a deceased loved one’s account.
  • Email accounts
  • Businesses: Websites, domain name/s, blogs, intellectual property, all data stored digitally etc.
  • Financial: Bank accounts, tax documents, investment accounts, credit cards, virtual currencies, savings bonds.
  • Personal: Electronically stored photo albums, music, movie collections, video games, websites, mobile devices, frequent flyer miles, medical records, shopping sites such as Amazon, EBay, Wayfair, food sites.

Estate Planning and Digital Assets

When it comes to estate planning we realize that protection of our homes, loved ones, and financial assets are critical. However, it is equally important to protect the legacy of your digital assets as well. Pointers for safeguarding your digital assets include:

  • Prepare an inventory of all your digital assets with a description of each along with your user name, password and related security information. Plan to update the inventory each time you make a change.
  • Store the inventory either with your estate planning documents or in a place that it can be accessed by your fiduciary (power of attorney, personal representative (executor), etc.).
  • Authorize your decision makers (your agent(s) named in your durable power of attorney, in the event of a lifetime illness or disability, and your personal representative (executor) named in your will to act for your estate upon your death) with the appropriate powers to access and deal with digital assets in the event of lifetime disability or death. Supplement those powers with private instructions, if applicable, as to how you more specifically wish your digital assets to be handled. For instance you may have certain personal accounts that you don’t ever want opened; be specific.
  • Be aware. Familiarize yourself with terms of service agreements associated with your social media accounts. Some platforms have incorporated ways of handling a deceased’s account, others have not addressed this issue at all.

The importance of including digital assets in your estate plan cannot be overstated as Internet usage becomes more pervasive and as online accounts become even more valuable. Be sure to discuss this topic with an estate planning attorney… soon.