Estate planning is about setting your affairs in order, making your final wishes known—and from an execution perspective, making it easier for your family to settle obligations and distribute your possessions after you’re gone. Sure, a lot of people don’t like to think, let alone talk, about the possibility of an untimely death, but the truth is there are a lot of logistics to work in the event of your sudden departure from life. For one, how will your family identify and access the possibly hundreds of online accounts you’ve set up over the years, some of which might hold some pretty financial and practical information? With so much of our livelihood in digital form these days, these types of questions can be a really big deal.
In the old, pre-internet days, even if someone didn’t organize their estate, there was typically a paper trail that could be followed when they were gone. Any accounts they had—financial, household, and the like—could be identified via the statements that arrived in the mail each month. Going paperless and ditching traditional statements is great for the environment, but it also eliminates these types of clues. And given the number or online accounts the average person possesses, how can these important accounts be tracked? Neglecting to take care of your estate—your entire estate—will create additional complications and anguish for your loved ones, and while it’s not a particularly fun activity, everyone needs a digital estate plan.
Start with the Basics of Estate Planning
First, if you haven’t made a will—you should, especially if you have children or other close dependants. As part of this process, you will name an executor who is the person given the fiduciary responsibility of taking care of your remaining financial obligations, such as paying bills and taxes, and disposing of your property. To do this, the executor will need access to all your accounts and assets. But, don’t include access details or any other sensitive information within the will itself, as it becomes a public document after you die. And while you’re making arrangements for unpleasant-to-dwell-on circumstances, you may also want to name a power of attorney to make decisions for you should you become incapacitated.
Get Your Head Around All Your Digital Accounts and Assets—and What Will Happen to Them When You’re Gone
This is no mean feat. And with every passing year, this list is likely to grow. Here are some different types of digital accounts and assets to think about as you start the process—and rest assured, you will likely think of more as you get going.
- Devices that contain information and other digital assets. This includes computers, smartphones, and tablets—and don’t forget about external storage drives.
- Bank and other financial accounts such as credit cards, insurance, investments, retirement accounts, cryptocurrencies, etc. These will likely comprise a significant portion of your estate, so your executor will need to know what’s there.
- Email and social media accounts. Once a period of mourning has passed, these accounts should be deleted to avoid any tampering or abuse after the fact.
- Recurring payments. Think about anything that automatically charges a credit card or debit account on a monthly or annual basis, including utilities, tuition, loans, and subscriptions.
- Other online services and accounts, especially ones that might hold sensitive information, such as shopping sites and medical portals, but also travel programs, video gaming, storage, and any other service or site that may need attention.
- Digital assets such as photos, music, and other valuable or sentimental data.
- Digital properties, such as domain names and websites you own and manage.
- Intellectual property (IP), which could include copyrighted materials, trademarks, patents, and even source code. Even “ordinary” files that may not have monetary or artistic value, like your own snapshots, are considered IP.
Once you’ve tallied up your digital holdings, you can decide what should happen to them after you die. Should they be kept and archived? Deleted? Transferred to someone you designate? Be especially specific about any assets that have monetary value, such as intellectual property or revenue-generating digital properties.
One complication you may face is the lack of ownership on “your” digital accounts or assets. Many companies offer their websites or accounts as licensing property, which means the licenses expire when the licensee dies. Some sites have provisions in place for this, while others don’t. For example, Google’s Inactive Account Manager lets you share parts of your account data or notify someone if you’ve been inactive for a certain period of time, and Facebook offers a process for memorializing or removing the account of someone who has died—likewise, with assets such as digital books or music. Unlike their physical counterparts, which you buy and can will to whomever you wish, the digital versions are given a license that cannot be bequeathed.
The Password Problem Is A Problem
If you’re practicing good password habits by creating unique, strong codes for each site and changing them frequently—and using two-factor authentication—you’re doing what you’re supposed to in the name of safety. But that said, this effort does make unraveling these accounts harder for your executor.
One option is to use a password manager, which helps you create long, hard-to-guess passwords that are encrypted, enabling you to create a unique password for every site that’s difficult for hackers to crack. Even better, it only requires you to remember the one manager password, rather than bunch, to access all your digital assets. And many of the top password managers offer an “emergency access” feature that will allow your executor to access all your the account within the manager site. You may also want to write down the password manager login credentials and keep it in a secure location, such as a safe at home or with your lawyer. One advantage to keeping it at home is you can easily update it when you change that master password. In that case, it’s a good idea to document the locations of the keys or combination of the safe and leave that with your attorney in a sealed envelope, only to be opened after your death. Don’t use a safe deposit box because even though it’s secure, many banks don’t allow access until the will is probated. This means you don’t have to store anything in the box that may be needed to probate the will.
If you use two-factor authentication on any sites, you should print out the “backup codes” and store them in a secure location—ideally with your password manager master password. These codes allow your executor to get access to your account without your phone. This is also a good idea in case you lose your phone.
The Laws are Evolving to Keep Pace with the Technology
Official in-case-of-death provisions are only starting to catch up. The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Access Act (RUFADAA because, lawyers) is a law developed by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) as a guideline for states to adopt and provide fiduciaries, such as executors with a legal path to managing digital assets after a person’s death. Most states are in the process of enacting a version of the law or have already done so. The RUFADAA offers a hierarchy of instructions for how fiduciaries should seek access to digital assets and provides a clear legal framework for digital asset rights to be specified in traditional legal documents.
Get Professional Help
Not that kind—with your planning. Your estate, and what happens to it after you die, are highly personal—but they’re also highly legal matters. You don’t want to die intestate, which is the fancy way of saying “without a will,” and you definitely don’t want to make a will that doesn’t account for your digital life. Articles like this one can help you understand some of the considerations you need to think about, but do yourself and your heirs a favor and work with a qualified legal expert. And do it soon. It may be unpleasant, but it’s the only way to guarantee a future for those you leave behind.