Digital Assets: Estate Planning for Online Accounts Becoming Essential (Part I)

December 13, 2010
1824234195 e6b913c563 m Digital Assets:  Estate Planning for Online Accounts Becoming Essential (Part I)

Image by luc legay via Flickr

If you are the only person who has access to your online accounts, then what happens when you die?  When you open an account online, you usually have to first accept the company’s “Terms of Service” on a take it or leave it basis.  These terms usually provide that the company will maintain some level of ownership in your account to the point that it can be very difficult for your executor or personal representative to access these accounts after you die.

Policies of Popular Online Sites

Here are the current policies of various popular online companies:

• Facebook: “If we are notified that a user is deceased, we may memorialize the user’s account. In such cases we restrict profile access to confirmed friends, and allow friends and family to write on the user’s Wall in remembrance. We may close an account if we receive a formal request from the user’s next of kin or other proper legal request to do so.”  Section 5 of Facebook’s Privacy Policy.

• Twitter: If we are notified that a Twitter user has passed away, we can remove their account or assist family members in saving a backup of their public Tweets.”  “How to Contact Twitter About a Deceased User”, from twitter’s help center.  

• LinkedIn:  “If we learn that a User is deceased, we may memorialize the User’s account. In these cases we may restrict profile access, remove messaging functionality, and close an account if we receive a formal request from the User’s next of kin or other proper legal request to do so.”  Section 3D of LinkedIn’s Privacy Policy.

• Gmail: With the username and password, Gmail has an easy set of instructions to delete the account here, although it is highly recommended by your friendly author that you have documented legal authority to do so.  Without the username and password, Gmail requires you to send several documents by mail or fax.  The Denver Post comments that “if you have private information you don’t want people to look at when you are dead, don’t use Gmail.”

• MSN/Hotmail: See “How to request data from a deceased user’s account?” from Windows Live Solution Center.  MSN will preserve the account upon request for 6 months and release information upon its receipt of all required documentation.

• Yahoo!: With the username and password, there is a relatively easy three-step process to delete the account here. How do I close my user account?  Unused accounts are generally deleted after 90 days of inactivity.  Please keep this in mind if you have essential photos on your Yahoo Flickr account.

Note that in most of these cases, ownership of the account is never simply transferred to the executor or personal representative.

Your Additional Data

In addition to the above, do you have any of the following?

  • Pictures stored online at Picasa, Flickr or some other photo sharing site
  • Video or other documents stored at GoogleDocs, Scribd, YouTube or some other document sharing site
  • Back-up of any other personal or professional data online
  • An online bank, credit card or investment account
  • A blog or a website
  • Any other online or email account requiring a password

All of these items, as well as your hard drives, iphones, flash drives and countless other online or offline sources are part of your increasingly valuable and important “digital assets” that must also be dealt with by your personal representative.

Solutions?

Strongly consider including your digital assets, including but not limited to those listed above, in your estate planning.

There are three organizations that will even serve as your “digital executor”:  Entrustet, Legacy Locker and DataInherit.  These companies enable you to input your account data and name your own contact person for the account on their secure sites.  When implemented in your estate plan, providing information to these resources can be of great help in keeping any valuable or sentimental data within your family’s reach.

Part II of this topic will cover how current law likely does not adequately protect your interests, and some steps you can take to alleviate this growing concern.

Please comment below!

 Digital Assets:  Estate Planning for Online Accounts Becoming Essential (Part I)
 Digital Assets:  Estate Planning for Online Accounts Becoming Essential (Part I)

Scott

Scott R. Zucker, Esq. is the owner of The Zucker Law Firm PLLC, located just outside the Capital Beltway in Annandale, within five miles of the City of Fairfax, the county seat of beautiful Fairfax County, Virginia. The firm focuses mainly on estate planning services for Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania clientele, and seeks to do so in an affordable and approachable way. People interested in learning more can contact Scott by phone or email.

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