Elevated SEO & Web Design presents a very special guest post written by Charles E. Dorwart of Life Plan Nebraska Law Firm. You can reach him with your comments and questions here.
You’ve may have decided who gets the house or those family heirlooms when you pass on. But what about your email account and all those photos stored online? What about social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others?
There are many questions about what to do with our digital accounts after we die, especially considering how much information is stored digitally nowadays. Our email accounts are our filing cabinets and our social media is a scrapbook of pictures and events of our lives. A person’s online musings, photos and videos, or blogs – can be worth considerable value to an estate.
Will heirs be able to access your accounts to manage your affairs or do you want to prevent them from snooping around in virtual territory you want kept private? Will your accounts simply evaporate over time or will your Facebook page still be up long after you’re gone?
Though the idea of a digital will hasn’t become mainstream, but many clients do ask their estate attorneys to include all sorts of requests in their Last Will and Testament. Requesting that someone clean up a digital footprint online is perfectly acceptable and recommended. The executor named in your estate plan has to settle all matters relating to one’s life—financial or otherwise—and you can specify that this person also should handle your online accounts.
While some people don’t care, others find the idea of their digital assets outliving them disconcerting. Creating a digital will helps you determine what accounts survive and which you take to your grave. The U.S. government suggests that people create social media wills that spell out how their online identities are to be handled after death. To do it, you should:
1. Appoint someone as an your online executor.
Because you’ll be leaving this person with the keys to your digital kingdom, this person should be someone who is willing to put in the time and effort to close or memorialize your online accounts according to your wishes, capable of protecting your sensitive information from identity thieves or snoopers, tech-savvy enough to be able to make changes to your accounts and trustworthy enough to carry out your wishes.
2. Consider the time commitment and privacy when choosing an executor.
Dealing with all these accounts does take time, especially as most of them don’t seem to have any sort of process like Facebook does. If you want to make it easier for your executor to deal with your digital accounts after you’ve gone, it’s a good idea to add them into your will. An estate planner can counsel you on the best way to do this. Conversely, there may be sites and/or services that you don’t want family members to access. In which case, ask your estate advisor to make mention of sites you don’t want to allow family members access to and add this to your will as well. Be careful to ask your estate attorney if your accounts will become public record if your estate goes to probate.
3. Understand the privacy policies of each website with which you’re associated.
You should know that unless you leave your online executor your passwords, there might not be much he or she can do. Google, for example, won’t let anyone into your email account without that person putting forth an application and undergoing a formal and lengthy process and, even then, he or she might not get in. Same goes for Facebook and other online social sites.
4. Provide your estate planner a list of all the websites and login credentials for which you want action taken.
Your estate advisor can then add to your estate plan and give to your executor when the time comes. If someone makes changes to your account by pretending to be you it may violate a website’s terms of service, but legally your designation of an online executor is akin to granting a limited power of attorney.
5. State in your Will that the online executor should have a copy of your death certificate.
This may help him or her take action on your behalf with various websites and accounts. Proving that you are deceased becomes much easier for your executor to expedite your online accounts, especially Facebook and other social media accounts.
6. Understand your accounts will be shut down if you do nothing.
Keep in mind if you do not include how you would like your digital information handled, legally, the responsibilities of a court appointed executor include shutting down your digital assets and accounts. It’s just as important to be clear about what needs to be done with information and for the not-too-tech-savvy executor it is important to be explicit about next steps.
Planning your digital assets now is comparable to planning your own funeral down to the last detail of choosing the burial site, the music to be played, clothing to be worn, or flowers to be displayed. Settling an estate can be an incredibly stressful and emotional time whether online or in person. Being prepared now will only help your loved ones in every aspect of their mourning.
About the author:
As a graduate of Creighton University School of Law Charles E. Dorwart Esq. has been practicing law in the Omaha metro area for over 33 years. Charles is a current Board Member of the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys. His main area of focus is Estate Planning, Trusts and Probate using the Three Step Strategy™ which provides a lifelong comprehensive solution for couples and individuals in the estate planning life cycle.