We tend to overlook the amount of information and assets we have on the web, including social media and networking websites (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn), frequent-flier miles, online credit card and bank accounts, subscriptions, photos, etc. What happens to all these accounts, and their value, when we pass away?
Most family members may not have a clue what we have floating out in cyberspace, and accessing or deleting accounts can be tricky for family members if they don’t have your login credentials. Each website has its own requirements and legal processes for dealing with death, which can be quite cumbersome. But there are a few actions you can take in advance to make this easier for your loved ones to navigate. And if you are in the one wading through the process after a loved one dies, read on for some tips to help get things done.
1. Make a list of everything you access online and the login credentials
In addition to having your estate planning documents in order, it makes sense to compile a list of all your online accounts, their user names and passwords. This includes bank accounts, credit cards, bitcoin, PayPal, email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Apple Music, Spotify, Shutterfly, Match.com, frequent-flier accounts, etc. It’s a lot, but it can be done bit by bit. Each time you log on to an account, just add it to the list. You can make a list of your online accounts using a password manager or a password-protected Excel spreadsheet and update it one a quarter or once a year.
Taking this first step to compile a complete list is important, because these accounts can potentially hold value. Accounts such as Amazon, iTunes and PayPal may have monetary value stored on the apps, which could be passed to heirs. There are exceptions, such as with an iTunes music collection, which is non-transferrable and gets deleted when you pass away. If you have a “family” sharing account through Amazon, you may be able to circumvent this for certain content. Credit card points and frequent-flier miles all have different rules depending on the company.
Beyond monetary value, your digital life could have sentimental value as well. Facebook and online photo storage accounts can hold a trove of family memories and posts you might like to see preserved after you are gone.
2. Determine what you would want done with each account
Once you have your list of online accounts, you need to decide what you want to happen to each one when you’re gone: Some you may want to save, while others you may want to ensure are closed once you die. The decisions you make will form the basis for creating your “digital will.”
Any online account that holds funds that can be withdrawn or can be used to make purchases should probably be closed or frozen (bank accounts, credit cards), but others could safely be left open if monitored. Many email accounts, for example, have a provision where if they go unused for a certain period of time, they will eventually close automatically. You would probably want to close accounts that could fraudulently be used since the owner is no longer monitoring the account. Most online providers will want a copy of the death certificate to close the account.
Meanwhile, the current Facebook policy once someone dies is to memorialize the account — certain private information is removed from public view, and the page becomes accessible only to friends. Facebook allows you to name a “legacy contact,” which is a person you select to care for your account after you pass away, and the account is memorialized.
If you would rather see your Facebook account be deleted, you can arrange for that yourself. Just follow Facebook’s directions to change your settings. If you don’t do that yourself, it can be difficult for a family member or friend later on to completely remove an account after your gone — unless they have access to your password.
Other social media accounts may provide similar options, so you may want to check into what each site offers. For instance, Twitter has strict privacy policies, and will rarely allow anyone to access the account belonging to someone who is deceased without a death certificate, power of attorney, a court order or an executor’s testament. Twitter has an online form that can be used to deactivate the account of a deceased user or someone who is incapacitated, but it may not be easy.
3. Assign someone you trust as online executor of your digital will
Now that you’ve decided what you want done with each account, it’s time to put your wishes in writing. You would want to work with your attorney on adding the correct language to your estate documents based on what you want to happen. This can be an attachment to your documents or a clause. Many clauses are fairly general and only reference what digital assets cover and may provide access to only your executor, trustee or power of attorney. If you want to get more specific as to who can access certain accounts, you may need to add additional detail.
For example, you may not want to allow certain family members access to your social media accounts, although you may trust them with the financial aspects.
In your digital will, you need to name a trusted family member or friend as your “online executor.” The easiest (although not the safest) way for the online executor to take action would be to provide them with the list you compiled in Step 1 of all websites and accounts you own and give them access to your login credentials to use once you are gone. Remember to update your list of credentials periodically if you make changes or update passwords, and make sure to explain where the information is located.
If you don’t want anyone to have access to your information while you are alive, a safer way to share your credentials is to give your online executor a copy of the document, but give the password to your attorney (or vice versa). The attorney will then give your executor the password only once provided with a death certificate so the information can be accessed.
What can you do if there is no documentation?
If no list of online assets has been left by the deceased individual, checking their email may be a good place to start as this could lead to clues on other accounts they may have. If you have access to their email account, it may make sense to keep email accounts open for a while as you will be able to monitor received emails. You can also look through saved or archived emails and potentially find username and password confirmations or be able to send the lost passwords for other accounts to that email address.
That being said, you need to be mindful of the laws involved. As Fidelity warns: “Laws on both state and federal levels prohibit unauthorized access to computer systems and private personal data. These laws serve to protect consumers against fraud and identity theft, but they also may create virtually insurmountable obstacles for family members trying to gain access to the digital assets and information of a deceased loved one. The law is evolving to keep up with the rapidly changing online world, but much in this area is still unclear. For that reason, it’s essential to ensure that your estate plan gives your fiduciaries the authorization they need to access any necessary digital data.”
Be advised that if the person hasn’t given you access to their email accounts, trying to gain it after they are gone could be next to impossible. Email providers are strict about such requests, often demanding a court order to consider them.
Aside from email, looking through credit card statements can also be helpful in determining any active online accounts that may be paid for by automatic debits, such as iTunes or Netflix subscriptions.
Since planning for online accounts is a relatively new development, speak to your attorney about the best way to handle your current situation as each state and each website has its own legislation on who can legally access your online information.
Roxanne Alexander is a senior financial adviser with Evensky & Katz/Foldes Financial handling client analysis on investments, insurance, annuities, college planning and developing investment policies. Prior to this, she was a senior vice president at Evensky & Katz working with both individual and institutional clients. She has a bachelor’s in accounting and business management from the University of the West Indies, she received an MBA at the University of Miami in finance and investments.
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