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Create a digital will to manage your online accounts when you're gone

Aug. 14, 2012 at 11:19 AM ET

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Timur Emek / AP file /

Consider the size of your online presence — your Facebook account, which details your daily life and personal history; your email account, which contains a wealth of your personal and business communications; photos, music and documents you have stored in the cloud; online banking accounts and records; frequent flier miles and more.

What happens to all this stuff when you die?

Will heirs be able to access your accounts to manage your affairs or do you want to prevent them from snooping around in virtual territory you want kept private? Will your accounts simply evaporate over time or will your Facebook page still be up long after you’re gone?

While some people don’t care, others find the idea of their digital assets outliving them disconcerting. Creating a digital will helps you determine what accounts survive and which you take to your grave.

How to create a digital will

The U.S. government recently wrote a blog post about this very topic and suggested that people create social media wills that spell out how their online identities are to be handled after death. To do it, you should:

  1. Appoint someone as an online executor. Because you’ll be leaving this person with the keys to your digital kingdom, this person should be someone who is willing to put in the time and effort to close or memorialize your accounts, capable of protecting your sensitive information from identity thieves or snoopers, tech-savvy enough to be able to make changes to your accounts and trustworthy to carry out your wishes.
  2. State in a formal document how you want your profiles and accounts to be handled. For example, do you want your email account deleted without anyone reading your messages? Do you want your Facebook account deactivated or would you rather have your Timeline memorialized (meaning only friends can see your page and leave posts in remembrance)?
  3. Understand the privacy policies of each website with which you’re associated. You should know that unless you leave your online executor your passwords, there might not be much he or she can do.

Google, for example, won’t let anyone into your email account without that person putting forth an application and undergoing a formal and lengthy process and, even then, he or she might not get in. Same goes with Facebook. One Wisconsin family had to actually get a court order to gain access to their son’s account when they wanted clues as to why he committed suicide.

  • Provide your online executor a list of all the websites and login credentials for which you want he or she to take action. If someone makes changes to your account by pretending to be you it may violate a website’s terms of service, but legally your designation of an online executor is akin to granting a limited power of attorney.

  • State in your Will that the online executor should have a copy of your death certificate. This may help him or her take action on your behalf with various websites and accounts.

Working with your lawyer on a digital will

Julie Min Chayet, managing director and trust counsel for Fiduciary Trust Company International in New York City, says the idea of a digital will hasn’t become mainstream. However, clients do ask attorneys to include all sorts of requests in their Last Will and Testament, so requesting that someone clean up a digital footprint online is perfectly acceptable and recommended.

Chayet says the executor named in your Last Will and Testament has to settle all matters relating to one's life—financial or otherwise—and you can specify that this person also should handle your online accounts.

“From a legal standpoint, the responsibilities of a court appointed executor or administrator include shutting down digital assets and accounts. It's just important to be clear about what needs to be done with information and for the not-too-tech-savvy executor it is important to be explicit about next steps,” she says.

For example, you could leave a written statement to be posted on your Facebook account.

“It's comparable to someone planning his or her own funeral down to every last detail of choosing the burial site, the music to be played, clothing to be worn, flowers displayed, poems or readings to be read and food to be served,” Chayet says. “Settling an estate is incredibly stressful and emotional. Being prepared will only help your loved ones in every aspect of their mourning.”

Websites that can help

While you can certainly keep your digital asset information on paper to be handed over to your online executor once you die, the reality is passwords frequently change and keeping an up-to-date paper list can be a pain. Instead, many password management websites offer features that will turn your digital assets over to others at the appropriate time.

Legacy Locker lets you identify your online assets and login credentials as well as “verifiers”—people who you trust to handle your online accounts after your death. Once you have passed away your verifiers must contact Legacy Locker, confirm their identities and the website transfers your account information to them as well as any letters you may have left at the site for family, friends or colleagues.

Cost: Free for a limited plan and one beneficiary, $30 a year or a one-time fee of $300 to record unlimited assets, assign as many beneficiaries and leave as many letters as you want.

SecureSafe is similar to Legacy Locker, but adds various amounts of file storage along with password management and transfer to beneficiaries.

Cost: Several pricing and storage tiers are available, ranging from a free account that gives you storage for 50 passwords, 10GB of files and allotment for one beneficiary to the most expensive option, which is $154.80 for a year of service which includes an unlimited number of passwords, 100GB of file storage and allotment for up to 20 beneficiaries.

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