79% of the population has a social media presence. Who owns it? What happens to it upon our death? Is it like our physical bodies and either buried, cremated or preserved? Is it like our other property that we can pass along to heirs?
We are now looking at something called a digital estate. How are our social media accounts owned at death? Access to brokerage accounts, bank accounts and online store (think Amazon) accounts—what happens to them? How will the executor of our estate know what our digital lives consists of, much less take control over it? Most people have complicated passwords that they do not share, and at your death, will your loved ones know where you store the passwords? We must plan ahead and leave a paper trail. Below please find some simple steps, pointers, and information.
Create a list of all of your online accounts. Beyond social media and email, this could include hotel and airline rewards programs, cloud storage, your financial accounts, and subscriptions such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, which could continue billing your credit cards ad infinitum. Leave the list with your estate documents, to be found by the executor of your estate.
Large portions of our social lives are conducted online—correspondence, photos, sharing music, videos, all of our Facebook connections and chats. If the hub of this wheel were to vanish suddenly, what would happen to all the parts? Protect the unique material that will become a special facet of who you are after your loved ones can’t see your face or hear your voice anymore.
Some email service providers (for example, Yahoo) will not allow access to anyone who doesn’t possess the user’s password. Google, however, created a service called Inactive Account Manager. All of Google’s services, such as Gmail and YouTube, can be accessed by up to ten individuals designated by you, with differing degrees of access. After the account becomes inactive, it will automatically be forwarded, even with a personalized goodbye message.
Facebook will preserve a deceased person’s account, unless you instruct Facebook to delete it after you’re gone. Appointing a “legacy contact” gives the survivor the ability to change the profile picture, add a pinned post, and download shared material. They would not be able to access your chat conversations or impersonate you.
Finally, passwords. After taking inventory of your digital assets, create a document collecting usernames, passwords, PIN numbers, and answers to security questions. Then, be very careful with this document. Do not put it in your desk drawer. Experts recommend password-protecting this file, storing it on a home computer, and backing it up to a USB drive. Then, separately store the password to this file. It can be kept with your estate planning documents (which some clients store in the safe at Colman Knight.)
If you use a password manager such as LastPass or Dashlane, it is recommended to designate an emergency access contact. In the case of your death or incapacitation, your designated contact would be able to login and manage your accounts. It is not hard to imagine a case where this would be extremely helpful to those left picking up pieces, after the unexpected occurs.