Protecting Your Digital Assets in the Afterlife

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Modern business professionals rely more and more on the Internet for success. Indeed, some depend entirely on email to contact customers and to keep in touch with suppliers. And with the explosive growth of social media, casual Internet users are also turning to sites such as Twitter and Facebook in droves. Many consumers have gone down the virtual path, accumulating online store credits and using PayPal to buy goods and services. But digital assets, which include anything from social networking profiles to email accounts to websites, can have value far beyond money. So the question remains: What happens when you pass away?

Planning for When the Inevitable Happens

In many cases, survivors have no right of access to the photos, emails and other digital assets of those who die or are incapacitated. Businesses, too—particularly smaller ones—run a real risk of paralyzed daily operations and even being rendered valueless after the death of the principal, as successors attempt to sort through the rights to digital assets.

The law determines how the property you’ve accumulated over a lifetime is distributed after your death. But social media assets, such as email, Twitter and Facebook accounts, are so new that most courts have not yet even developed rules for distribution. As one observer stated, it’s important to make sure that your secrets don’t follow you to the grave. There are legal solutions, of course, but they all involve planning ahead.

With so many online accounts and passwords these days—bank accounts, Flickr, YouTube, Amazon, PayPal, Facebook and Gmail, to name a few—it’s often difficult for successors to the account holder to access these accounts that may sometimes contain vital information. Making a last will or advanced directive can solve the problem by identifying each digital asset, providing access and the appropriate codes, and specifying a disposition.

The Hurdles of Accessing Accounts After Death

Because of so many strict privacy laws concerning online activity and account access, nearly every account-based website will have regulations in place. Some social networks, such as Facebook, allow certain survivors to freeze accounts, while denying access to others, according to Karin Prangley, writer for the American Bar Association. Other Internet service providers require a court order before revealing an individual’s password. Yahoo falls into this category. Before sharing a password from a Google account, a copy of the death certificate is required. 

But to avoid unnecessary delay, there is no better solution than including your wishes in your will or advanced directive. 

Creating a Will for Cyberspace

In many cases, a court ultimately decides how your property will be distributed, particularly if you’ve stated your wishes in a last will. A will can also determine who will carry out its provisions, which may include access to email accounts, ownership of retail credits, websites and profiles from social networking sites. If immediate access to your digital or other assets is required, a temporary executor can be appointed by the court on short notice for that limited purpose, rather than waiting for the permanent executor to be appointed, which can take months depending on your jurisdiction.

Even if your state is one that doesn’t require court involvement in distributing your assets—a process called “probate”—creating a will provides beneficiaries and executors solid direction on how you want your digital legacy distributed.

If you wish for a particular person to have access to a specific digital asset, you can state your wishes in your will. As noted above, the privacy policy of the particular provider may allow temporary access to others, but stating your intent in your will provides guidance as to the identity of the ultimate beneficiary of the asset. Also, wills typically include “general gifts” that cover items not specifically given in the will, which are often acquired after the will is made. So even if you’ve added several pages to your blog or a hundred new friends to your Facebook account, your last will can still keep up with the changes.

It’s easy to forget that digital assets are just as important as tangible assets. And like real estate or money, it’s important to protect the legacy of digital assets and consider who should maintain control and how.