Back in 2009, I was featured on Bay News 9 as a reporter was working on a story of a mother who wished to maintain the online presence for her teenage daughter. This question comes up quite a bit as we become a more digital population and our lives play out online:
What happens to your Facebook account when you pass away?
What if no one has your passwords to get into your account?
Well, if you are on the internet and involved in social media, then you have more to worry about then just your Facebook account. What about the rest of your “digital” assets? Your digital assets include your online accounts that require a username and password and your files stored on your PC, thumb drives, mobile phones or info stored “in the clouds”. If something happens to you and no one else has the passwords to your accounts, your family or loved ones will be at the mercy of the online company and whatever their terms of service (TOS) were that the individual accepted when they signed up. A recent MSNBC article, and countless others, also try to address this increasingly burning issue.
It is important to note that, most online services such as Facebook and Twitter, do not allow for the transfer of the individual’s account to the personal representative. In fact, Facebook will not provide the password information to anyone. The most they will do is “memorialize” the account so that only confirmed friends can post on the page or see the account. This also prevents anyone from logging onto the account. Likewise, Twitter will not provide any password information. They will work with the estate or immediate family member to deactivate the account and they have a specific process which should be followed. If you would like to see a list for popular online sites, the Zucker Law Firm PLLC has done a great job outlining digital asset policies: http://estateplanninginfoblog.com/2010/12/digital-assets-estate-planning-for-online-accounts-becoming-essential-part-i/. Although it is from 2010, it doesn’t look like the policies have changed much.
What about your online access to bank accounts? Generally, until an individual is appointed personal representative of the estate, no one has access to bank information or control of what is going in and out of the accounts. I would guess that banks’ policies regarding online access are similar to Facebook and Twitter – I doubt they will give out that information. Can you see now why it is important for someone to have access in case something should happen to you?
So what can you do to protect your information? I have begun giving my clients a digital asset worksheet so that they can keep track of all their personal information and store it with their estate planning documents so that their loved ones have access to the information at their death. This list should include the email account information, websites, online storage accounts and social media accounts. It would also be helpful to list what you want to have done to these assets. For instance, do you want the particular asset to go to someone specific? Do you want the account shut down? Or is there something else you want done with the asset?
Although the worksheet is not considered a binding legal document, in Florida, you are allowed to leave a “Separate Writing” which can be kept with your Will and can instruct who you want to have certain personal items. This separate writing only needs to be signed and dated (it does not need the formalities of the Will which require the signing to be done in front of two witnesses and a notary). Therefore, if you change your mind, you can always change the separate writing and keep it with your Will.
Another alternative would be to sign up with an online digital asset firm such as Legacy Locker (www.legacylocker.com) or Entrustet (www.entrustet.com). These types of companies provide secure maintenance of all your digital asset information and will allow access to your personal representative of such information. You can also store messages to be delivered to loved ones after your death.
I know it’s not the first thing you want to think about – what happens to my social media accounts when I die, but if you are already doing your estate planning, why not consider including these assets, as well? It will make your family or loved one’s life much easier.
Laurie Ohall is a board certified elder law attorney in Brandon, Florida. If you would like to learn more about estate and digital asset planning, please contact her Brandon law office today.