Digital Death: Planning for Digital Assets

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Does your Will say anything about your Facebook account? Your email accounts? Your Pokecoins?

Many people store photos online, have cloud-based collections of books and music, and use cloud storage products like DropBox and Google to store their documents. Some people even have valuable gaming assets or currency online.

What happens to digital assets when you die? Who can access your accounts? What happens to your photos, books, and music? Many people do not realize that although they own the pictures and data in those accounts, the account holder controls access. You’re really just the license holder. (Do you remember all those terms of service agreements you’ve clicked through?)
 
If you have online property- even if it’s just email accounts and some social media accounts- you probably have a lot of valuable information and memories stored there. If you have online property, you should have a plan.
 
As more and more people keep more and more information online, this is becoming a real issue in estate administration. Laws in many states (New Hampshire and Massachusetts included) do not grant fiduciaries the authority to access digital accounts as part of the default legal authority granted to fiduciaries; the authority must be specifically granted in your estate planning documents.
 
This may not seem like a big issue, but it can lead to distressing situations for survivors. They may not be able to access years of accumulated photos. They may not be able to access your email address book to inform your friends and colleagues of your illness or passing. They may even lose access to the apps on a shared iPad.

The law is struggling to adapt to the explosion of online property we’ve all started to accumulate. (Technology develops at a much faster pace than legislation.)

The Uniform Law Commission, an organization that drafts model laws (such as the Uniform Probate Code and Uniform Commercial Code) recently drafted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which has been adopted by some states and is being considered in many others.  New Hampshire and Massachusetts are both considering adopting this law, but have not done so yet.

So what can you do now? Having updated estate planning documents that authorize your agents and executors to have access to your digital assets is important. You may also wish to keep a list of your digital assets and a list of your wishes- for example, would you want the accounts to be deleted? Do you want your family to have access to all of the pictures? What about your email contacts?

If your agents and executors know what you want and have the authority granted to them in your estate plan, they’ll be well-placed to carry out your wishes. Depending on the asset, you may wish to incorporate it directly into your Will or Power of Attorney.

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Accessing Digital Accounts after Death

Many digital companies have procedures for dealing with account holders who have passed away. (Apple doesn’t as of this writing.) They may also have default modes of freezing accounts- Facebook, for example, "memorializes" the accounts of deceased users so that they can be viewed but not used.

Companies will require documentation (such as a death certificate or court appointment) if you want to do anything with another person’s account or have access to its contents. Even if a company does not have a specific policy, they may be able to help you if you can provide documentation proving death and showing that you have legal authority to deal with the account.

Facebook: Your Digital Legacy

Google: Inactive Account Manager Set Up  (About)

Twitter: Deactivate a deceased person’s account 

Instagram: Report a deceased person’s account

LinkedIn: How to remove a deceased person’s account / Removal Form

WordPress: Deceased User

Dropbox: Access a deceased person’s account

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