Technology is advancing at an increasingly rapid pace. The age of the internet has ushered in an unprecedented level of connectivity. In today’s modern world, people accrue vast amounts of digital assets, including digital files, such as photographs, videos, and documents, as well as digital accounts, such as social media, e-mail, websites, financial accounts, etc. As our digital footprint grows more valuable, it would be prudent to consider how these assets are handled after death.
At a minimum, one should leave their executor a digital asset inventory, as well as instructions on how to access their online accounts. The user IDs and corresponding security information can be stored in an encrypted electronic vault in order to maintain cyber security, which the executor would need access to. However, it is also important to understand what legal rights your beneficiaries have to access these accounts, if any at all.
It may not necessarily be possible to leave online accounts through a will or other estate planning vehicles, depending on the terms of the user agreement. Social network accounts, domain names, e-mail, and other types of online accounts can be licensed by the individual but may not be owned outright. The agreement may terminate once the owner passes away, at which point the account administrator then controls what happens to the content. It is important to understand each company’s specific terms of service that details the legal rights to access the account. These access rights can vary in different states.
Some service providers, such as Facebook, are proactive in adding account settings to address this quandary. Facebook allows for the deletion of a user’s account or a memorialized profile in the event that a user passes away. A memorialized account is a place were people can gather to grieve and share memories of their deceased loved one. However, the profile itself will be frozen unless a legacy contact is designated within the user settings to manage the account. Facebook then allows the legacy contact to manage the memorialized account. For example, they can respond to new friend requests, pin a final post, or update the profile/cover photo, but cannot delete friends or view private messages sent prior to the deceased’s passing.
Digital assets can have a sentimental value. As a result, it is important to ensure that a plan is in place so one’s final wishes can be carried out accordingly. In addition, it would be wise to revisit the digital estate plan periodically. As technology advances, former instructions may become obsolete or need amending to stay current.