Many of you have a Will (or Trust) that protects your assets in the event of death. A Will ensures that physical assets make their way to your spouse, siblings, children or other loved ones. But what about your “electronic assets” such as online bank accounts, website domains names, Gmail, Facebook, blogs, PayPal, eBay, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, and online photo and video collections?
Why is this important? When you die, you want someone to delete credit card information and email accounts. You want someone to notify your friends and contacts. You may want your online photo albums or online genealogy preserved for family members. What will happen to electronic assets, such as accounts with PayPal, eBay, iTunes, and ING Direct that have a real financial value?
Unfortunately, the law has not kept up with technological advances. For instance, you can generally get access to a deceased owner’s online bank and brokerage accounts, provided you follow procedures and have the proper documentation, but many online service providers (OSPs) make it very difficult or impossible to gain access.
Email messages, instant messages, and personal files you upload from your PC and store online are all considered private unless you have placed them in the public domain. The Stored Communications Act (part of the broader Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986) protects individuals’ stored electronic communications, which courts have interpreted to also include emails and attachments, photos, videos, and other digital artifacts, from access by third parties. Most OSPs have privacy policies that state communications and stored data remain private unless the user chooses to share them.
Some OSPs have guidelines to help family members unravel the electronic accounts in the absence of a password. America Online (AOL) requires a copy of an individual’s Certificate of Death and proof of authorization to administer the estate, before turning over an account to a survivor.
Google requires the same documentation as AOL for access to a Gmail account, but it also requires an e-mail that the decedent, using the Gmail account in question, had contacted the survivor on any topic during the decedent’s lifetime.
Yahoo! Terms of Service states that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a Death Certificate, the account and its contents may be permanently deleted. Although in a closely watched court case, Yahoo! was recently required to turn over email messages to family members of a deceased US Marine.
EBay requires similar documentation in order for a survivor to access a decedent’s eBay seller’s account. EBay will not, however, grant access to an eBay buyer’s account.
Facebook puts the deceased person’s profile in a “memorial state” when it is informed of a user’s death. The login and password will not be provided to anyone, but Facebook will respond to requests from the immediate family to remove the profile.
So what can you do to make sure these assets are handled the way you intended?
First, you could include instructions in your Will or Trust. The probate court will honor the wishes of the deceased, but as noted above, the legal right to close and transfer accounts is logistically difficult. Also, online accounts and passwords change frequently, making it difficult and time consuming to identify the electronic assets of the deceased. The best solution is to have pre-existing arrangements with the service providers that will allow you to specify the person(s) you want to have access to your accounts.
Second, you should keep a USB flash drive or other storage device with information and login instructions for all of your accounts. Tell a family member or responsible friend the location of this device and instructions. Keep it in a secure place where the person will have access and be sure to update the information as needed.
Third, you could set up a “Digital Will”. A handful of services such as LegacyLocker.com, SlightlyMorbid.com, and DeathSwitch.com, allow you to maintain information regarding your electronic assets, including account numbers and passwords. Upon your death, they will release your information to the designated person. Some of these services will also send posthumous emails to friends and family. The costs vary… some of them offer basic service for free for a limited number of accounts. But all services seem to be very reasonably priced. For security purposes, most of these services will independently verify your death. If you are concerned about turning over all of your login information to someone you don’t know, you can entrust half of your digital information to one of these services and the other half to family members, so that each side’s information would be useless without the other.
Lastly, you could just do nothing. Most email providers will eventually delete all of your old emails, and domains expire after a period of time if not renewed. This is probably not an option if any of your electronic assets have an economic or emotional value. But be careful here as many paid subscriber accounts and domain names automatically renew using a designated credit card chosen when the account is set up, and will continue to renew until the credit card expires.
As we become more comfortable with technology, we tend to transfer more of our offline assets and personalities to online media. As we do so, we need to make sure our virtual assets are protected after death in a similar fashion as our real-life assets.