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:
• 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.
• 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.
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.
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- Tweets From the Grave: Is Your Digital Estate Protected? (smarterwill.com)
- 7 Resources for Handling Digital Life After Death (mashable.com)
- What Happens To Our Online Identity After We Die? (www.impactlab.net)