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Among Your Estate Planning Documents, Should You Have a Digital Will? Yes, You Should – and the Sooner, the Better

The longer we live with technology, the more intertwined our tech becomes with our lives and—inevitably—with our legacies after we pass. Here at the AgingOptions Blog we strive to bring you information to help you prepare for your future, especially some of the more obscure but essential things you may not have considered. We thought that this article from Kiplinger by Roxanne Alexander highlighted a rather unusual—but important—aspect of planning: what to do with your digital footprint after you pass away. We first presented this article early this year.

As Alexander puts it, “Online accounts and digital media are valuable, and they could be misused, locked up or even lost if you don’t take the right steps. Your estate plan isn’t complete unless you’ve accounted for your digital assets.”

Helping Your Loved Ones Navigate Your Digital Footprint

No matter who you are, the amount of important information you have online is probably weightier than you think: social media posts, financial accounts, subscriptions, photo storage, even frequent-flier miles. Have you ever considered what happens to all of this information and accrued value after you pass away?

The fact is, most of our family members probably have no idea how many accounts we have or how to access all of them. If like most you store your login information in your head, your loved ones may be stuck after your death or incapacity with no ability to access or delete your accounts. “Each website has its own requirements and legal processes for dealing with death, which can be quite cumbersome,” Alexander writes. “But there are a few actions you can take in advance to make this easier for your loved ones to navigate.”

Whether you are putting together a plan for your digital information—or you are trying to make sense of a loved one’s digital will after their passing—Alexander provides some steps below to help make the process easier.

Step 1: Map It Out

When was the last time you sat down and mapped out—in list form, ideally—all of your online accounts, usernames, and passwords? Probably never! But this is the first step to helping your loved ones sort through everything after you pass, and should be seen as an essential part of estate planning.

When making your list of accounts, be exhaustive. “This includes bank accounts, credit cards, bitcoin, PayPal, email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Apple Music, Spotify, Shutterfly, Match.com, frequent-flier accounts, et cetera,” Alexander writes. She adds, “It’s a lot, but it can be done bit by bit. Each time you log on to an account, just add it to the list.”

Another way to make compiling accounts easier is by using your browser’s password manager (Google, Firefox, and Apple all have this feature) or by making an Excel spreadsheet, secured with a password, and keeping it updated. Digital vaults like LastPass can also be useful.

While every website has its own rules about what happens after a user’s death, the general guideline is that any monetary value is transferable to heirs. So, this means accounts like Amazon, PayPal, and certain features of iTunes may have stored assets that heirs can inherit. Media content—like a music collection on iTunes—simply gets deleted after you pass away and cannot be transferred to another user. Gray areas include credit card reward points and frequent-flier miles, and each company has its own way of handling a user’s passing.

Aside from actual financial assets, don’t downplay the importance that access to your social media accounts could hold for your loved ones. Instead of physical photo albums, most of us keep our treasured memories online, and these accounts can preserve your memories and thoughts long after you pass. 

Step 2: Make A Plan

As you compile your list, you’ll need to start sorting the important accounts from the less important ones. Alexander says, “Some [accounts] you may want to save, while others you may want to ensure are closed once you die. The decisions you make will form the basis for creating your ‘digital will.’”

For example, bank accounts or credit cards or any account that can be used fraudulently should probably be closed or frozen, with access tightly limited to those people you have authorized. However, you can safely leave social media accounts open as long as a family member is able to check them once in a while. Beware: some accounts—like email—close automatically after too much inactivity, so make sure you factor that into your planning if your email accounts contain important information.

Some companies make the process easier than others. A copy of the death certificate will be required by some companies in order to close an account. Twitter makes accessing and deleting a deceased person’s account incredibly difficult thanks to their detailed privacy rules, while Facebook has a whole policy devoted to turning an account into a memorial to the deceased person and allows you to name a “legacy contact” to care for the account. That said, actually deleting your Facebook may be more difficult than you realize, so it’s worth looking into your options for each social media account and deciding which option feels best to you.   

Step 3: Write It Down

Creating your plan is all well and good, but for something to stick you need to put it in writing to make it official. Alexander explains, “You would want to work with your attorney on adding the correct language to your estate documents based on what you want to happen. This can be an attachment to your documents or a clause. Many clauses are fairly general and only reference what digital assets cover and may provide access to only your executor, trustee or power of attorney. If you want to get more specific as to who can access certain accounts, you may need to add additional detail.”

In this part of the process, you can make it clear which accounts each family member can access, but you will definitely need to name an “online executor”, one family member or friend who has the ultimate say. The easiest—but not always the safest—way to do this would be to simply provide that person with the password list you made in the first step of this process. In order for this to work you need to make sure you update that list regularly and let them know where that information is kept.

Alexander prefers a safer option. “If you don’t want anyone to have access to your information while you are alive,” she writes, “a safer way to share your credentials is to give your online executor a copy of the document, but give the password to your attorney (or vice versa). The attorney will then give your executor the password only once provided with a death certificate so the information can be accessed.”

How To Navigate Without a Map

If you’re on the other side of this situation, and your loved one has left you with no list of assets or login credentials whatsoever, all is not lost. Alexander recommends starting by checking the deceased person’s email. Most email accounts remember and fill in the password automatically, and should give you a good overview of the sorts of accounts your loved one had around the web. Look through saved and archived emails to find username and password confirmations, or use the email address to send password resets to yourself.

Importantly, Alexander cautions that “you need to be mindful of the laws involved.” He quotes a lengthy statement from Fidelity: “Laws on both state and federal levels prohibit unauthorized access to computer systems and private personal data. These laws serve to protect consumers against fraud and identity theft, but they also may create virtually insurmountable obstacles for family members trying to gain access to the digital assets and information of a deceased loved one. The law is evolving to keep up with the rapidly changing online world, but much in this area is still unclear. For that reason, it’s essential to ensure that your estate plan gives your fiduciaries the authorization they need to access any necessary digital data.”

If you don’t have access to your loved one’s email account, be aware that it could be very difficult to get it. A court order is often required. But looking through credit card statements can also give you a rough map of your loved one’s subscriptions and automatic payments, and should start to fill in the gaps.

Digital estate planning is a relatively new concept, but new strides are being made all the time to catch up with the way we live our online lives. For any questions, no matter what stage of the process you’re in, consulting with your attorney will help you navigate the rules on a state-by-state and site-by-site basis. If you are planning ahead, make sure you don’t ignore your digital will. Your loved ones will thank you.

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(originally reported at www.kiplinger.com)

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