Planning for Your Digital Estate
Traditionally, digital assets and digital estates is not something that comes to mind when planning someone’s estate. In this day in age, people are storing a lot of property and information on digital media platforms and continue to sign up for more accounts from different providers. A 2011 McAfee Survey revealed that people in the U.S., valued their digital assets at nearly $55,000 per person. Protection of your digital estate and planning on what will happen to it after you pass away continuously grows as a relevant issue. Your digital estate refers to your rights to all your digital media accounts. These rights can be inherited after someone dies. Digital estates can include online accounts, passwords, contracts, receipts, money transactions, medical information or personal websites. This digital presence may also involve bank account information, writing, images, and any social media content. The process of handing over personal digital assets to other people after you die, or digital inheritance, is growing more important and there are many ways to plan for it throughout your lifetime.
In some instances, what happens to your digital media depends on the Terms and Conditions you agreed to (likely without reading) when you created your account. Different social media providers and websites have their own process regarding what to do with someone’s account after they die. For example:
• Facebook: Provides the option of turning your page into a memoriam page so people may still view your pictures and memories. Some aspects of your account are changed. For example, no one will be able to access your account and only your confirmed friends will be able to view your page.
• Dropbox: Accounts are deleted if accounts are inactive for 90 days.
• Google: Gives access to an ‘Inactive Account Manager’ that can me managed by a delegated user. Family members or associates of the decedent may submit a range of requests.
• Myspace: Gives the option to create a memorial account.
• Twitter: Does not allow access to anyone but will close accounts of deceased persons and archive posts upon request.
• YouTube: Grants access to other people under certain conditions. YouTube follows Google’s ‘Inactive Account Manager’ system.
• LinkedIn: has its own process of removing profiles of deceased members.
Dealing with social media providers after an account holder dies can be problematic, costly, and time consuming. For example, the family of Justin Ellsworth, a Marine who fought and died in Iraq, got into a long legal battle with Yahoo to gain access to their son’s account. It was part of Yahoo’s terms and conditions that they do not give access to the account to anyone other than the account holder. Eventually, the court ordered Yahoo to grant access to Justin’s family. Issues like this can easily be avoided through several different ways.
The easiest thing you can do is make a list of all the information needed to get into your phone, computer, or online accounts. Make sure to have this information available only to people whom you trust. Simply having this available in case anything happens to you is the easiest way to ensure that your digital assets will not sit in limbo after you die. You can manage your passwords through apps like 1Password and LastPass. Other sites, like SafeBeyond, will distribute your digital assets to whom you designate as your digital heir after you pass.
Adding language to your estate plan regarding your digital assets may also be a good idea. Simply giving someone a blanket authorization to access your accounts may not be appropriate. Putting language in your estate plan regarding exactly who will have access to certain information may be more comforting because, while access to your accounts are important, some information is better kept private. It is important to keep your estate plans up to date and specific because digital technology is rapidly changing and laws are consistently adapting to these changes. Be sure to discuss these issues with your attorney when you set up your estate plan. If you have an estate plan in place, it is never too late to make changes to incorporate your digital estate.