Let's face it: Your e-mail account, Facebook page and online
photo albums are likely to outlive you. Deciding how to manage your
digital legacy just may be your trickiest estate-planning task.
As people increasingly live--and die--online, family members and
estate executors are left to sift through e-mail messages, Facebook
status updates, blog posts, tweets and other digital remains that
may have significant financial or personal value. And even if they
have all the required passwords, many heirs will find they have no
clear authority to access or manage the online accounts of the
deceased. A confusing and sometimes contradictory snarl of online
user agreements and state and federal laws can restrict Internet
users' ability to transfer their online accounts to loved ones
after their death and prevent families from retrieving information
stored in the digital realm.
Despite the devilish details, it's essential to include online
accounts in the estate-planning process. Failure to plan ahead may
prevent loved ones from recovering family photos or videos or
settling your final bills. It also could leave your estate
vulnerable to post-mortem identity theft, if fraudsters decide to
apply for credit cards in your name while nobody's watching your
What's more, a library of digital music or an Internet domain
name that you own may have financial value that's significant to
your estate. The domain name HotelsGuide.com, for example, recently
sold for $60,000, according to domain-name marketplace Sedo. "We
shouldn't dismiss our digital assets as insignificant or
unimportant," says Evan Carroll, co-author of
Your Digital Afterlife
(New Riders, $25). "The things that may seem ephemeral to us are
very valuable to heirs once we're gone."
The value of these assets can go far beyond the financial worth
in the wake of a loved one's death. After her brother died in 2011,
Melinda Miller quickly had his Facebook account "memorialized,"
meaning friends can still post messages on his page, but no one can
log in to the account. "That first six months, I didn't know if my
parents were going to recover" from the loss, says Miller, 41, an
elementary school principal in Springfield, Mo. But as friends have
continued to post photos, songs and holiday greetings on her
brother's page, "it's very comforting to the family to see the
messages continue," she says. "It's like a memory wall."
The first step for seniors starting to navigate this new world
of digital estate planning is to recognize the obstacles they face.
Each online service provider has its own terms of service--the
legal mumbo-jumbo you click through when you open your account--and
those terms often say that you can't transfer your account or hand
off your password to anyone else. Those restrictions pose a
challenge for heirs who might want to access your e-mail account,
for example, to retrieve bills and other documents.
Providers differ on how they handle the accounts of deceased
users, but some are starting to help users plan their digital
afterlife. The Yahoo terms of service, for example, say that "any
rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate
upon your death," and accounts may be deleted if a death
certificate is submitted. Google in April introduced a new feature
allowing users to specify that after a certain period of inactivity
their account data should be deleted or passed along to specific
individuals. At Facebook, relatives may be able to request the
contents of the account--a lengthy process involving a court
order--or ask that the page be deleted.
Federal laws present another hurdle. If you use your late
mother's password to log on to her account, you may violate not
only the provider's terms of service but also the federal Computer
Fraud and Abuse Act, which governs certain unauthorized access to
computers. And a federal privacy law, the Stored Communications
Act, can limit providers' ability to share deceased users' account
contents with relatives.
A handful of states, meanwhile, have passed laws attempting to
clarify executors' power to manage a deceased person's digital
assets. But given the variations in the state laws, federal laws
and technology companies' terms of service, some legal experts say
such legislation has done little to remedy the confusion. "It is a
very unsettled area" of law, says Gerry Beyer, law professor at
Texas Tech University. The Uniform Law Commission, which helps
standardize state laws across the U.S. by drafting model
legislation, currently has a committee working on the issue.
Some accounts that you access online don't pose much of an
estate-planning challenge. Because financial institutions have
clear procedures for handling an account holder's death, it's
relatively straightforward for executors to arrange for the
transfer of assets to beneficiaries, estate planners say.
Protecting Your Digital Afterlife
Although many other online accounts remain in a legal fog,
seniors who take a few simple steps now can greatly increase the
odds that their online afterlife will be handled according to their
First, take inventory of all your online accounts, including
e-mail, social networks, blogging sites, photo-sharing sites,
frequent-flier accounts, shopping sites such as Amazon.com, credit
card accounts, and online bill-payment accounts, such as those
established with utilities. For each account, list log-in and
password information as well as answers to "secret" questions.
The security of such a list is a critical question. One
solution: Use a password-management system such as
or 1Password (
). These services will encrypt your log-in and password information
and keep it stored on your own computer. You'll have a master
password to unlock the data, so it's easy to retrieve and update
password information. Another option: Save the list in a
password-protected document on your computer. Don't put any
password information in your will, which becomes a public
When you've completed your inventory, write down where you've
stored the information and the master password needed to access it.
Put that information in your safe deposit box or in your attorney's
vault. Seniors creating a power of attorney document should also
include specific language authorizing their agents to deal with
their digital assets, Beyer says.
Next, consider signing a statement, which can be drafted by an
estate-planning lawyer, authorizing the companies that hold your
online information to disclose that information to your executor or
other representative, says James Lamm, estate-planning attorney at
Gray Plant Mooty, in Minneapolis. The authorization may be included
in your will. That way, your executor can request a copy of the
contents of your online accounts, rather than trying to access the
account directly--and possibly running afoul of the terms of
service or federal law, Lamm says. "That should work, but I can't
guarantee it," he says. "That's as good as we can get under current
Seniors may be able to avoid sticky legal questions by
downloading their online account information to a home computer.
Some tech companies are making this process easier. Facebook, for
example, allows users to get a copy of all of their correspondence
with friends, photos and other account content in a single
download. A service called Backupify (
) will also help download content from Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and
other personal accounts.
A cottage industry of online data-management companies has begun
selling services that claim to transfer your digital assets to your
beneficiaries. One such service is offered by SecureSafe, launched
in 2009 by Zurich-based online storage company DSwiss. It has
already signed up more than 300,000 individuals and is adding
roughly 10,000 new customers a week, says spokesman Andreas Jacob.
But legal experts say such services don't resolve the potential
conflicts with online providers' terms of service or federal laws.
SecureSafe's terms of service say that users must comply with the
laws of their own country, Jacob says.
Even when family members have shared all their passwords with
each other, managing online accounts can be difficult. Karen
Marcus, 39, of Richmond, Va., had all of her husband's passwords
when he died in 2010, but she didn't have all of the log-in IDs he
used for online bill payments. She tried to convert the online
bills back to paper statements, which wasn't an easy process. Her
electricity was turned off, she says, after the power company was
slow to send her the paper bill that she had requested. But when
dealing with such a loss, she says, "you don't know what day it is,
what time it is. And you want to make things as simple, as tactile,