Managing Your Digital Afterlife

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You know how important estate planning is for your loved ones. You want to make sure that they are provided for and that the process of disbursing your estate is simple, quick, and free from surprises. However, you may be overlooking one essential part of your estate: your digital footprint. The data you leave behind, both saved on digital hardware and archived online, may have substantial financial and sentimental value for your heirs.

What is a Digital Footprint?

Your digital footprint includes personal correspondence, files and documents, photographs, financial information, e-book/iTunes libraries, and subscription services. Some of these, such as your photographs and writings, may hold significant sentimental value for your family. Other assets, such as your online bank accounts and libraries, may have some financial value. It will be essential that you have a plan in place to share necessary information with your loved ones so that these assets will not be lost.

Planning to Transfer Digital Assets

Without a plan in place, your loved ones may have difficulty (in the form of time, money, and even public legal disputes) accessing your online information. Under the 1986 Stored Communications Act (part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act), public communications services may be prohibited from disclosing electronic communications without the owner’s consent or a search warrant. Depending on the company’s policy and the relevant terms of service, your loved ones may or may not be able to access valuable data.

So, what can you do about it?  First, it will be important to take stock of your digital life.

  1. Make a list of your electronic hardware, including computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, cameras, hard drives, and flash drives. Describe in the list where each item is located, what is stored on it, and any password(s) required.
  2. Identify software you use to store data. This can include word processing programs/software, spreadsheets, financial records software, tax preparation programs, etc. Again, list where this software is stored, what data it contains, and any necessary passwords.
  3. Think about your online presence and write it all out. This one can be the most challenging because many people have numerous accounts and passwords and your online presence is ever-changing. Make this a living document. It will need to be updated every time you create a new account or change your password. Your online presence includes social media accounts, your website, your blog, any cloud accounts, photo storage websites, email accounts, bank accounts, online shopping sites, online bill pay, and any other sites that store your credit card or bank information. On your list, include passwords, account/user names, and any specific instructions. For example, you may want your social media accounts deleted, but your website or blog kept up and running. If your site currently or potentially produces revenue, include information regarding that.

Keep your lists in a safe place. Choose someone who you trust to be responsible for your digital afterlife and tell them where the lists can be found when the time comes. 

Designating a Fiduciary on Social Media or Email Accounts

Several online platforms have created planning tools that allow you to designate how you would like your accounts managed in the event of your incapacity or death. For example, Facebook will enable you to select a “Legacy Contact”, who will be allowed to manage parts of your account when you die. Under Facebook’s terms of service, the Legacy Contact cannot sign into the account and see your private messages, but they can post a pinned message to the top of the timeline, respond to friend requests, and update your profile picture and header image.  Your Legacy Contact can also download an archive of your posts and photos, if you permit for him or her to do so.

Google does not designate what happens to your accounts when you die but instead refers to the length of time an account is inactive. For all Google accounts (including Gmail, Photos, and Google Drive), you can list up to ten trusted contacts who will be notified if your account has been inactive for a certain length of time (you select the amount of time). These trusted individuals will then be given three months to download data from your account before it is deleted. If you do not wish for a loved one to be able to access your Google accounts, then you can also use this “Inactive Account Manager” tool to specify that an account should be deleted after a certain period of inactivity.

Other social media and communication companies typically do not allow for you to designate a fiduciary in advance but do have a policy for your loved ones to get in touch after you pass. For example, on Instagram, a loved one can contact the platform and ask that your account be memorialized. This means that while the posts will still be visible, the account will no longer be available to log in or make changes, and it will be removed from the Search and Explore archives. Twitter and Yahoo do not allow anyone to access your account after you die. Instead, these companies will allow a family member, a personal representative, or someone with power of attorney to provide proof that the account holder is deceased, at which time they will deactivate or delete the account. Microsoft, on its platforms such as Hotmail, Live, MS, and Outlook, will allow your next of kin, personal representative, or someone with power of attorney to provide proof of your incapacity or death and release your data (emails, attachments, and address book) to this person on a DVD.

Because some of these tools limit what a named contact can do and see, if you want a loved one to have full and immediate access to your accounts, you should provide login information for all accounts. There are password managers with legacy features that will give a trusted contact access to your passwords. Keep in mind that some websites prohibit password-sharing in their terms of service. This means that even if you give a trusted person permission to access your account using your password, doing so will be in violation of the terms of service.

Providing for Your Digital Afterlife in Your Will

Many online accounts do not have a mechanism for you to appoint fiduciaries in advance, so you will need to designate a person in your will. Make sure to write how much access you want them to have and what you would like done with your data. Do not include detailed account information and passwords in your will. Remember that wills become a part of the public record during the probate process. Place all sensitive information in a safe place and make sure that the designated person knows where to find it.

Online Bank Accounts and Other Financial Assets

Bank accounts, insurance policies, and other accounts that you hold exclusively online will have either a beneficiary designation form or a payable-on-death (POD) designation. These forms will allow you to choose a beneficiary who will receive the assets from these accounts when you die. It will be essential that you keep copies of these forms in a safe place, along with your other digital footprint assets so that accounts are not forgotten.

Ask a Florida Estate Planning Attorney for Assistance

If you are ready to safeguard your digital footprint, start by calling our office in St. Petersburg, Florida at 727-537-6818 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys today!