What Happens to Digital Assets After You Die?
Your Online Afterlife
Keeping online account information protected is a must in a technological era where personal and confidential information can be easily accessed virtually. However, you can’t take those eight-character, clever passwords with you when you go.
Estate planning can be a difficult task, especially when determining what is actually considered an asset. In today’s cyber-oriented society, online or digital assets may be just as important to a person’s estate as a stock portfolio or homestead.
Digital assets include social media accounts, digital photos, email and online banking accounts and records. Many online companies have been known to honor contracts with users — even after death. They will not release account information to a deceased person’s friends or family in an effort to maintain the terms and agreements established when the account was created.
Automatic bill pay, for example, can theoretically keep tapping your bank account long after you’re gone or, at least, until your money is.
“It’s important to make sure your online bank and shopping accounts, even your social media, can be closed out, or that your loved ones are authorized to access them,” said Hillel Presser, author of “Financial Self-Defense.” “You may ask, ‘Why would I care if I’m gone?’ I can tell you from experience: Because it can create real headaches, and more heartache, for your family.”
According to Terrance Dariotis, a Tallahassee-based wills, trusts and estate attorney, some online accounts, such as bank accounts and investment accounts, are treated as probate assets. To determine the rightful heirs to these assets, the deceased person’s estate will be subject to a probate court proceeding.
“If it is an online bank account or online investment account, that account would most likely become a probate asset unless the account was a joint account or allowed a ‘pay on death’ beneficiary,” Dariotis explained.
He added that though it is possible for the state to be given access to your accounts during probate proceedings, it is highly unlikely. Often, family members gain access to a deceased relative’s online bank accounts and investment accounts.
“If you have an online banking account it is very rare that the state will get it during probate. Depending on your situation — whether you’re married or have children — your assets will probably go to someone in your family,” Dariotis said.
Recovering other digital assets, however, may be a more challenging ordeal for living relatives. If a person’s passwords were not made readily available to others before they died, recovering his or her account information could be impossible.
In some cases, a court order may be granted that allows a family the rights to a deceased family member’s possessions, which would include all of the person’s assets and records. Things get complicated, however, when trying to determine if the deceased person wanted their online accounts to be accessed.
For that reason, various companies implement different policies for dealing with a deceased user’s account.
Hotmail will provide relatives with a CD of all the messages in their loved one’s account given they provide a death certificate and proof of power of attorney.
Google launched a product called Inactive Account Manager that allows users to specify what happens to their data — which includes email from Gmail accounts, videos in YouTube, pictures in Picasa and documents on Google Drive — after they have been inactive for various lengths of time. After three, six or 12 months of inactivity, users can request that their data be deleted.
However, with social networking accounts things work a little differently. Facebook, for example, will follow a family’s wishes to take down a deceased user’s profile or “memorialize” it by removing features like status updates and letting only confirmed friends view the profile and post comments. Twitter will deactivate the account of a user who has died if a confirmed immediate relative can provide proof of death.
Most of the headaches that may arise from trying to access a loved one’s account after they’ve died can be prevented by discussing their wishes beforehand. Legal experts now encourage people to specify in their wills what they would like to happen to their online accounts after they’re gone.
Presser suggests that perhaps the simplest way to ensure your online life is taken care of is to appoint a digital executor — a tech-savvy person who will be willing and able to carry out your wishes. Authorize the person to access your inventory of log-in information and spell out what you want done with each account, whether it’s providing access to loved ones or business partners, or deleting it.
As an estate attorney, Dariotis advises people of all ages to specify in their wills whom they would want their assets to go to, even if the asset is simply a password.
“If you die without a will and you’re single and your assets go to your parents it might not be a big deal,” Dariotis said. “However, when you’re married and you want someone other than your spouse to receive assets it’s important to have a will, because you can name the beneficiary.”
He added that when creating a will people can be as specific or general as they’d like. Using generic terms that will entrust a person with your accounts would suffice in most situations.
“You don’t have to be really specific. You can use generic terms in your will that name someone a beneficiary of various assets, including online accounts,” Dariotis explained. “A young or unmarried person may or may not need to have a will, depending on different factors. But it never hurts to have one.”
The digital world has grown and transformed so rapidly, the law hasn’t kept up, which makes managing your digital afterlife challenging, Presser added.
“Until there are more consistent laws and procedures governing this area, it’s best to plan ahead, leave clear instructions and be sure you have a list of accounts where your estate lawyer or a loved one can find it and access it,” he said. “It will make a world of difference to your survivors.”