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Planning For Your Online Afterlife
You may think that your Last Testament and Will (herein "will") clearly and thoroughly identifies all of your assets. But, it is very likely something is missing. This is not necessarily your fault because these items are of a new, unique nature and have not been considered "property" until very recently. So, what is it you are overlooking? Your online accounts.
Even if you are not an eBay entrepreneur or blogger extraordinaire, you likely have private accounts containing written material, photos, or personal information. At minimum, almost everyone today possesses an email or Facebook account. Some may have an online account that contains sensitive intellectual property, or even an online business. You may have thousands of unused flier miles or monetary credits stored in accounts. What, if anything, will you do with these password-protected accounts upon your death? Do you want a loved one to have access to this property? Or, would you prefer the accounts remain inaccessible, condemning them to become ghosts of the Internet's past?
When conducting your estate planning and drafting your will, there are two basic ways to handle online accounts:
1. Do nothing.
If you do not plan for the transfer of your account, then the information contained therein may be lost forever. You also risk the chance that someone (and it may not be the person you would prefer) will gain access to your accounts.
Everyone knows that no one really reads those lengthy, legal-jargon-filled "user policies" before clicking "accept" to open a new online account. But, it turns out, there is often information contained in these policies that will determine what happens with your account after death. For instance, it is Facebook's policy that an account of a deceased person will be "memorialized" on the social media platform. If a loved one wants the Facebook account deleted, then they will have to make a request and provide verified documentation that they are an immediate family member or an executor. Requests will not be processed if the folks at Facebook are unable to verify the relationship to the deceased account holder.
If a loved one wants access to the material contained in your Facebook account (photos, links, messages), then they should know, as stated in a disclaimer on the site, "The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require [them] to obtain a court order."
There is very little consistency in company user policies on this issue. For example, Yahoo email users agree to a strict non-transferability policy upon opening an account. Users' rights to their Yahoo email and all of its contents terminate upon death.
These oft-unread and complicated policies should stir some trepidation. Even if you choose to do nothing with your accounts, learn the policies so that you will know who, and who cannot, access these when you are gone.
2. Provide passwords to your important accounts to a designated person so that appropriate action can be taken.
There are a number of ways you can do this:
•· Handwrite the passwords and leave them in a safe deposit box
•· Direct your executor to distribute them as per your will
•· Give them to a trusted person now
•· Keep them in an online "locker" with instructions as to how to handle them on your death
In addition to these options, there is another one for Google users. Google recently announced the launch of a new feature that allows its users to determine what happens to their digital assets after death. Google's "Inactive Account Manager" service allows you to set an inactivity deadline, where if Google's servers detect that you've been inactive for the specified number of months, it will take action. Up to ten trusted loved ones can be notified and/or receive all or some of your data after the dormant period. If you choose to not share your online property with anyone, you can just have your accounts and data self-destruct. Check out the new service here: https://www.google.com/settings/account/inactive.
The Inactive Account Manager is an intriguing idea and I suspect we will see more of these features appear on other types of accounts in the coming months. While specifying via the Internet what you want to happen to your Internet accounts after death may be easy and convenient, it is recommended that you also include your directions in a place where everyone knows to look-your will.
Terri R. Stallard is a Member of McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC and practices from the Lexington and Louisville offices. Ms. Stallard concentrates her practice in the areas of estate planning, trust and estate administration, and charitable planning. She is licensed to practice law in Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee, and in the U.S. Tax Court. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 231-8780, ext. 258.