The online world – most of us have at least some presence there. The options range from social/entertainment to business and online banking, bill-paying and data storage. We have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. iCloud, Mozy and Carbonite. G-mail and text. Oh, and there are passwords – lots and lots of passwords.
So what happens to all of that when you die? What happens to your Facebook page, your Twitter account, all your emails and digital pictures stored online? What about intellectual property that you have stored digitally? Do you have accounts for online games in which you “own” property there that may have value and could be sold in the non-digital world? That’s your digital estate, and it’s an interesting question. It’s a little like the Wild West out there, with nobody really sure what all the rules are and who’s making them.
Now I’m not an attorney, I’m a financial planner. But both groups are starting to take a look at this because it’s something that can impact our clients now and certainly more of them in the future. No one is really sure what’s going to happen. We have horror stories of folks dying and their email accounts being deleted before the emails- their history – can be downloaded and saved by heirs. You can have Facebook pages that stay up – even if the heirs or the original owner would rather they come down. What’s causing all this confusion? A starting point is the Terms of Service agreements we all agree to when we decide to set up an account on one of these platforms. Each one is unique. And from your perspective, each one is a take-it or leave-it proposition. You can’t negotiate the terms of paragraph 3 on page 7 that says upon your death all access to your account will be terminated. If you want on to their system, you agree to their Terms of Service. Many of these accounts are deemed “non-transferable”, meaning you can’t give your account to someone else. That creates some interesting situations for an executor. Do they go into your account and get what they want before they notify the company that you’re deceased? Could an attorney ethically suggest that when it would violate the Terms of Service? What will Facebook do if people start posting condolences BEFORE the executor can get there? Will they close/freeze the account?
What can you do? Until laws are written to address this (some states have tried already but there’s some question as to how enforceable they are) you’re on your own. There are certainly a few things that can be done:
- Make a list of all your online accounts, along with user names, passwords, and urls, which can be accessed quickly by your executor.
- Give some thought as to:
o Who should care for the information in a particular account going forward? It may be different people depending upon the purpose of the account.
o What you would ultimately like to happen to that information or account. Do you want it destroyed, or memorialized in some way?
- Talk to your estate attorney. Does your Will or Power of Attorney attempt to address these issues?
- Look into companies like SecureSafe, PasswordBox and EverPlan. These are services where passwords and other information can be stored online.
- Hope the legal system catches up and addresses these issues before more people run into this potential nightmare.
It’s going to be an interesting few years as more and more people with significant digital presences die and heirs are forced to confront this issue. Give some thought to it now and maybe spare your executor and heirs some work and headaches.
Todd Washburn, CFP
Todd Washburn Solutions, LLC