Digital data is all the “stuff” we collect, store and share with others. It includes emails, documents, images, audio and video collected in email and social networking accounts, software licenses, domain and hosting accounts, financial management accounts, and online shopping accounts. Although much of it makes living easier, more productive or simply more fun, it also makes estate planning more complex.
When you die, a fiduciary (an agent under a power of attorney, executor of a will or trustee of a trust) must gather and take possession of the assets of your estate; protect and prudently invest the assets during administration; and pay your final debts and expenses. Traditionally, fiduciaries would look through your mail, bank statements and paper records to identify any financial assets and liabilities. Nowadays though, so much of this information is collected and stored on the Internet that accessing it can be difficult.
There are a number of legal and logistic obstacles to accessing a deceased person’s information, and the level of difficulty can vary. It’s most often disclosed in the “terms of service.” Few people actually read the terms of service when they sign up for an online account, but companies enforce them scrupulously, so don’t assume that your heirs will be able to log in to your email or other accounts without the proper information. For example, Google does not generally grant access to Gmail accounts to an accountholder’s heirs or representatives. Its website states:
We extend our condolences for your loss. If you need access to the Gmail account content of an individual who has passed away, in rare cases we may be able to provide the contents of the Gmail account to an authorized representative of the deceased person. If we are able to move forward based on our preliminary review, we will send further instructions outlining Part 2. Part 2 will require you to get additional legal documents, including an order from a U.S. court.
Another example is LinkedIn, which allows a deceased person’s profile to be removed, but in order to do so, you must have access to the email connected to the account.
One simple way to prevent this from happening to your heirs is to sign up for a password manager service. These services, which include LastPass, 1Password, KeePass, RoboForm and Keeper, can help you avoid lost or forgotten passwords. They will securely save all your passwords and keep them safe using one master password. Of course, if you choose to use a password manager service, make sure that your fiduciary knows where to find the master password!
Your digital life will not disappear when you pass away. Make a plan for how you’d like your information to be handled, and remember to leave behind a way to retrieve it. iBi