By Elizabeth L. Wynn
Have You Remembered to Pass On Your Passwords?
When an individual dies, his named executor or other fiduciary is allowed access to all physical assets including letters, documents, and legal papers. However, in today’s digital age, these fiduciaries also need authority over administering digital assets and accounts upon the incapacitation or death of the account holder.
Almost everyone has at least some assets that are not physical, but instead, are stored as data and accessed through the Internet. These digital assets include emails, documents, online photo streams, social media accounts, insurance records, bank accounts, and logins and passwords used to access online accounts. You could have online accounts with money or credits left in them, or lock away important financial information, photos, and videos that no one can access.
There are a few things you can do to deal with these issues before you die, to avoid leaving your loved ones with a tangle of inaccessible digital assets.
First and foremost, make an inventory of all your digital assets. This will probably seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. You may want to begin with your primary email account. This is likely the most important step because usually, this is where other online accounts interface, providing login and password resets, credit card balances, and accounts payable, just to name a few.
Second, decide what you want to happen to all your intellectual property once you’re deceased. Decide now and make sure your wishes are known.
Lastly, give someone authority over your digital assets in the event of your incapacitation or death. This can be done through such options as a Power of Attorney, Last Will and Testament, or Trust planning.
Check with the Terms of Service on all your online accounts to see what steps you need to take to ensure you include all your accounts in your digital asset estate planning. Google, through their “Inactive Account Manager,” allows users to share parts of their account data or notify someone if they’ve been inactive for a certain period of time. On the other hand, upon request and presentation of a death certificate, Yahoo will only allow you to delete an account. There are no options to access a decedent’s emails or photos. Facebook, once provided with a death certificate, will allow you to delete an account or memorialize it, which basically freezes it in time and removes it from certain features, like “People You May Know.”
Practically speaking, the best way to make sure these important digital assets go to the right people is to share the necessary information with those people. It’s never a good idea to include login information in your will because it becomes public record at your death. Alternatively, in your estate planning documents, you can direct your digital fiduciary to a safe place, like a safe deposit box, where he can locate this information. Another option is a password manager. There are online companies that allow you to choose a digital heir to inherit access to your passwords, which will be stored with that company.
Regardless of which method of retrieval you use, make sure you specifically include digital assets in your estate planning wishes.
Elizabeth Wynn is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and practices law in Ridgeland. She and her family live in Madison.