Saturday, December 13, 2014

Estate Planning re: Online Accounts

Courtesy of Sofiaperesoa
One of the hottest topics in estate planning right now is "digital estate planning," which involves managing your online legacy after your death.  In this post, I will focus on three topics:  1) Inventorying your online assets, 2) managing your passwords, and 3) making instructions for the handling of your social media and other online accounts.

Inventorying your Digital Assets

Our society has become so accustomed to conducting business online that many of us have a staggering number of online accounts.  In the unexpected event of your death, it will be difficult for your executor to properly close out your affairs without being able to gain access to an inventory of all your online accounts.  Indeed, even while you are alive, you may have so many accounts that it is difficult for you to make a full inventory!  However, doing so is a good first step to getting control over your digital legacy.

Here are a some of the digital accounts you should include in your inventory, from the obvious to the easily forgettable:
  • Bank
  • Brokerage
  • IRA
  • Pension
  • Credit card
  • Insurance
  • Utilities
  • Cell phone
  • Toll transponder (iPass, EZPass, etc)
  • Magazine subscriptions
  • Amazon, ebay, etc.
  • Hotel rewards, frequent flyer, etc.
  • File storage
  • Social media
  • Web hosting
  • E-mail
  • Blogs

Making an inventory will better help you prepare you to meet with an estate planning attorney, to discuss strategies to deal with your digital assets.  For security reasons, you may not choose to share this list with family members while you are alive, but it will be useful to have when discussing a digital estate planning strategy with your attorney.

Managing Passwords

Good password management can be the difference between having your death wishes enacted, or frustrated by online security features.  If, for example, I give written instructions for my executor to post a memorial article on my blog after my death, it would be important for my executor to have access to my password.  On the other hand, I may not wish to share my password while I am living.  Even if I trusted someone with my password now, I would not easily be able to update this person each time I updated my password (which is a good idea for security purposes).

Password management is a difficult problem in today's society.  I have at least 20 separate passwords for various online accounts, and the number only seems to grow every year.  Some online services, like onepassword, offer to store all your passwords in a digital vault, accessible only with one master password.  Some questions I would ask before using one of these services are, "what happens to my passwords if the company goes bankrupt?" and "what security precautions are in place to prevent a hacker or disgruntled employee from breaking into the digital vault?"  

Some people prefer more old school methods, like writing down all passwords on a sheet of paper and storing that in a bank safe deposit box, or a house safe, and giving the executor the power to access the documents after their death.  Of course this method is not foolproof if the document is not updated or its location is forgotten.

At the end of the day, there may not be a 100% perfect solution.  However, an attorney can help you weigh the pros and cons of various password management systems for your estate planning purposes.

Instructions for your Social Media and Other Online Accounts

Each internet company has its own policy for dealing with an account after its owner's death.  An overview of these policies can be found here and here.

Your loved ones have some options for how to handle your social media and other online accounts after your death.  If you would prefer your Facebook page show a memorial video after your death, leave instructions to your executor explicitly stating that.  If you prefer that your blog, online pictures, and other assets be taken down after your death, make those wishes known.  

My personal wish is that my blog and other resources I put online be available for people to view after my death.  That means I need to leave instructions to my executor and loved ones to preserve this site, and not let the account expire.  This may take some active management, so I need to leave specific instructions.

Remember that just because you post something online, you do not necessarily lose all rights over it.  For example, the information in this blog is copyrighted, and I would expect my executor to take reasonable steps to protect it if someone tried to improperly copy the material.  By alerting him or her to a full profile of my digital assets, I better ensure that my online accounts are taken care of the way I would have wanted.  Whether you have a blog, Facebook page, email account, or other account, it is better to have a plan in place than to leave your family struggling to take care of your online presence after your death.

Published by Ian Holzhauer, Esq. of Nagle Obarski PC in Naperville, IL.  

Note:  The information above is not legal advice and is not the basis of an attorney-client relationship.  If you need assistance, you can hire an attorney to assist you with your individual legal needs. 


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