The proliferation of online accounts and assets in the digital age makes planning for access and transfer of digital assets an essential part of any estate plan.
With all due respect to Warren Zevon’s 1976 release I’ll sleep when I’m dead, tweeting once we reach our eternal slumber probably isn’t something on any of our post-bucket lists. However, it does raise a good question: What happens to my social media, email, and other online accounts when I die?
Digital estate planning is a relatively new phenomenon, having only begun to receive attention from legal and financial planning scholars in the past decade or so. Just as technology evolves with breakneck speed, the laws governing control and access to one’s digital estate are also evolving, albeit at a somewhat slower, legislative pace. Nevertheless, whether you are a bitcoin millionaire or you are still using an @aol.com email address, digital estate planning is a vital component to any plan involving incapacitation or death.
For most of us, the majority of our assets with material value will be transferred via instructions left in our will or trust documents. More often than not, these documents don’t address what we’d like to see done with our Facebook profile or that treasure trove of pictures we have stored in the cloud. While these “assets” may not have much material value, providing instruction to our fiduciary on how they should be handled is a vital piece of planning to ensure an orderly transition of assets and to safeguard against identity theft. While any comprehensive digital estate plan should be created in coordination with an attorney, following these three steps can help get you off to a solid start.
Use a password management tool.
Leveraging a service like LastPass, Dashlane or Password Boss can not only provide a convenient means for inventorying all of your online accounts, but they can also help you create more secure passwords. However, while simply giving a fiduciary access to your online accounts via one of these services seems like a simple digital estate plan fix, it actually runs afoul of the Stored Communications Act. So while your executor may be able to access your online social media and email accounts using information stored with a password management tool, they may not be allowed to actually do anything with them.
Draft a Virtual Asset Instruction Letter.
A Virtual Asset Instruction Letter, or VAIL, is becoming an essential component of any estate plan. A VAIL should list all of your online accounts and assets and provide instructions for how you would like the executor of your estate to handle each of them. Should the account be deleted? Should access be provided to another decedent? Given the multitude of online accounts we all have these days, this can seem like an insurmountable task, but it is a vital piece of planning.
Leverage account-specific tools.
When available, the best option is to use your own service provider’s account tools. These items are often discussed in those Terms of Service Agreements we all often skim over when registering for a service. For instance, Google has an Inactive Account Manager, which allows you to designate a trusted person who can access your account once it’s been inactive for a certain period of time. Facebook provides you with the option of naming a “legacy contact” who can manage your account after your death. It’s important to note that when leveraging these tools, they will usurp all other instructions left in any estate planning documents. As of this writing, Twitter does not provide a “legacy tweeting” tool. If tweeting from the grave was in your plans, you may have to seek an alternative. While this is by no means a comprehensive list of steps you should take to put a digital estate plan in place, it will get you on the right track. Of course, you should always consult with your attorney regarding all estate planning and legal matters.