Adding Digital Assets to Your Estate Plan
The vast majority of adults in the U.S. have some sort of digital presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and/or one of the many other social media outlets or online communities that exist today. But what happens to all of these accounts and the digital assets contained within them - including photos, videos, text posts, friend or contact lists, events, and more – when you die? That depends on you. You have a number of options, depending on which social media services and online accounts you use.
Option 1: Do Nothing
There are several potential drawbacks to doing nothing at all. First, your account may be vulnerable to hackers if no one is monitoring it and keeping up with security protocols, such as periodically changing passwords. But doing nothing can also lead to pain and heartache for loved ones who continue to receive birthday and “friendversary” announcements and reminders from you.
Doing nothing may also result in turning over control of your account to your least reliable or least trustworthy relative who may make decisions, including downloading data or deleting accounts, against your wishes.
For example, some platforms allow a proven relative – and in some cases, even a friend – to gain at least some measure of control of a deceased person’s account to close or delete the account, to access data from the account, or to turn it into a memorial account. Usually, the person requesting the change to the account must fill out a form or provide some information, including information about their relationship with the deceased and proof of your death, but not all platforms or sites require these ‘proofs’ to be official.
In some cases a mere public mention can be used as proof of relationship, and many sites require only a newspaper article or obituary to establish that the account owner is deceased. But even where official proof such as a death certificate, birth or marriage certificate is required (which would limit the people who could request modifications to the account), the individual making the request may not share your values or your idea of what is appropriate to post on social media and may not take the action you would prefer to either preserve digital assets for your loved ones or delete them.
Option 2: Take Advantage of In-App Choices
The second option is to take advantage of the choices available within some apps or platforms that allow you to control your digital accounts after your death. Although each individual platform has its own set of rules, there are some common themes.
Some apps or sites allow you to designate a legacy contact within the platform itself, or to advise the site in advance what you want to happen with your account when you die. For example, Facebook allows you to designate a legacy contact to convert your Facebook page to a memorial for you, or to permanently delete your account. Google has an Inactive Account Manager that lets users designate a trusted contact who will automatically be given access to your data when your account has been inactive for a certain period of time.
Even if you choose one of the in-app options, in most cases, someone must first notify the platform of your death. As a result, it is a good idea not to rely on in-app options alone, but to combine those choices with the third option: creating a digital estate plan or adding your digital assets and accounts to your estate plan.
Option 3: Add Your Digital Assets to Your Estate Plan
Including your digital assets in your estate plan allows you to dictate who will be in charge of your digital accounts and deciding how your data and accounts will be treated after you pass. You can name a digital executor to manage your accounts after you die in the way that they see fit, and/or leave behind specific instructions about what to do with each individual account.
At the very least, you will probably want to designate a digital executor and leave a list of each site where you have a digital presence, along with your username for each account so your representative can contact each site or service. If you want your digital executor(s) to have complete access to your social media and other online accounts, in most cases, you will need to provide your complete login information, including all usernames and passwords.
Beware that total control means that the individual will be able to access private data and messages if they have your login information, so it is important to carefully consider who you designate as your digital executor(s) or legacy contact(s), and how you give them access.
An estate lawyer can help you to decide how your digital assets should be managed after your death and protect them within your overall estate plan. If you have questions about digital estate planning, post your question on our site to be connected with a qualified estate planning lawyer near you.
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