Many individuals that spend a lot of time and energy preparing their wills in the event of their untimely demise never consider provisions for their online estate. If an individual has not exerted any effort to safeguard their digital life, then gaining access to an account might be impossible for those left behind after his or her death.
With an increasing amount of personal financial dealings being stored online in accounts that are password-restricted, it is important to provide access after the account holder’s demise. This can include bank accounts, personal messages, email accounts, and arrangements for automatic bill pay. Piecing together an individual’s virtual estate after their death can cause major confusion and headaches that could take years to unravel.
As an example, an individual with an online account that is separate from a traditional financial banking institution may have all of their notifications and statements electronically delivered. Without knowing it, any heirs to the estate could easily overlook the account simply because they do not know it exists.
Locating Electronic Financial Information
Many attorneys that have to deal with estates often spend days tracking down viable financial information from individuals that do not properly set up their wills. Sometimes, even a fully detailed will cannot solve every problem. Without the account passwords, it can take years to get through the maze in an effort to sort everything out. Survivors need detailed login information. However this is usually only acquired through the court system that has the power to provide legal authority to access accounts. While the process varies between states, in every state, the task is never easy.
This challenging issue is not just limited to banking institutions and financial accounts. Many times, the heirs of an estate would like to save sentimental personal electronic items including online email accounts, stored photos and instant messages. Other problems that can arise include the ability to control an individual’s online profile on social media sites including Twitter or Facebook, after the person has departed. Without the proper login information, access into the account is often denied. Some social networking sites will convert an existing profile page to a memorial page, but only after being requested from a family member.
Access to Domain Names and Blogs
There are trickier situations that often arise after a person has died concerning their electronic estate. These include web-based businesses along with the ownership of domain names, media sites and blogs. Sometimes situations get complicated when a survivor attempts to cancel mobile phone or cable service that is set up on automatic bill pay. Without the proper login information, it is nearly impossible for any family member to gain access to the account and stop the charges.
There are numerous restrictions buried deep in many terms of service agreements that can get tricky when accessing an online account of the deceased individual, even if it is a parent or spouse. Without the necessary paperwork showing control of inheritance, changing an online account might be seen as tampering, or a violation of federal anti-hacking laws.
Some States Have Passed Laws
Many professionals that handle estate planning indicate that the problem seems to be getting much larger. Recently, numerous states have passed significant legislation that is directly related to the management of digital property after an individual has died. Even with these new laws, many professionals have created significant strategies to handle the problem. They have developed step-by-step instructions on exactly how every heir can gain access to electronic properties to virtually transfer them after the client has died.
Specifically, these strategies include a full detailed inventory of every digital account with a complete updated list of all active passwords. These are passwords that are managed and maintained on a flash drive and locked safely away in a safety deposit box. Additionally, there are dedicated websites that hold information that can be released to a designated beneficiary after the death of a primary account holder.
What to Consider
A digital asset is typically an online account that stores information electronically. Digital assets can include social networking sites, brokerage accounts, online banking, video sites, sites that store photographs, blogs, online consumer transaction sites and much more. In planning an effective electronic estate, it is imperative to consider the following, that includes:
- A complete inventory of all digital assets
- A list of every account and device along with usernames, PINs, passwords, etc.
- Creating power of attorney for an agent of choice
- Provide authority to the will’s executor or the trustee successor
- The avoidance of detailing names and passwords in a revocable trust or will
Without taking some action, many accounts that hold valuable information or access to cash could be potentially gone forever. It is imperative that every individual creates an electronic estate plan that coincides with their physical estate plan to ensure that the beneficiaries have access to the properties that the deceased individual had desired.