There are times when gaining access to a recently deceased person’s email can be very useful. The information gained can help their friends and loved ones clean up many of the business transactions of the deceased, and it can pay some or all of their bills. They will also be able to contact their online friends with the bad news of the decedent's passing. It is also possible that potential heirs may find that the recently deceased person may have valuable property online.
One of the keys for finding this out comes with reading a given site’s Terms of Service (ToS). For example, the ToS may determine whether the account holder or the site owns the copyright on their work. This is why most people may be foolish to simply agree to these terms when they open an online account, without even reading the details. In addition to copyrighted work, some other digital property may also have real monetary value, such as virtual goods that can be earned or exchanged on online gaming sites like World of Warcraft or Fortnite. Combined, the virtual goods related to these gaming sites have a value estimated at more than $1 billion, much of which may be converted into real money.
Of course, it's also possible that digital assets lacking any market value could retain sentimental value. That type of value is a major factor on sites like Picasa, Flicker, Google Photos and many other sites, like Instagram or Facebook. And there is a lot more than photos to consider. A lot of people own ersatz memoirs, like personal blogs and social media posts that potential heirs may want to keep, or which may be important to historians and journalists, depending on who the subject of those writings is. Yet, despite the fact that these types of digital assets have been around for a quarter-century in some cases, state probate laws continue to be unclear regarding the status of these assets.
Why Planning is Important
That means, if (when) you die, your online accounts will most likely stay active unless the site automatically deletes the account due to inactivity, or your family has requested the account to be closed. Most sites allow access to your personal data by your next of kin, but to gain this right, they will need to mail proof to the website. Even though you may have died, if you use one password for all these sites, your family members might be able to use that password, or even guess your secret question, but then, they might not.
After you pass away, a bank or brokerage can’t simply take your money because you’re dead. If you don’t have a will or other estate plan, the laws of your state determine who gets the value in those accounts, but it won't be the bank. However, even though the Internet and the concept of Internet accounts is well into its fourth decade now, the treatment of digital assets is still a much different story. If you don't make a plan to pass them along - which includes letting your heirs know what you have as part of your online life - a lot of valuable assets, including online photos and videos, frequent flyer miles, cryptocurrency and/or many other digitally stored files could very well disappear without a trace.
On the other side of that coin, some stuff you may prefer to have kept to yourself and perhaps even shut down upon your demise, including emails and texts, social media accounts, or even dating app profiles, could be shared or hacked unless you take steps to secure the information.
Step 1 - Make a list
Estate planning experts recommend compiling an inventory of your online accounts and digital files, along with your login ID, passwords and the answers to any security questions. If relevant to a particular account, you should also list the two-factor authentication is in use. You should include a list of your devices, including laptop and desktop computers, tablets, smartphones, e-readers and anything else you may have. Make sure you include any passwords that apply, including the passwords to any important apps. Then inventory the other electronic logins you have, that you use, own or control. Include the information related to the following:
- Email accounts, like Gmail, Yahoo, iCloud or work email)
- Social media accounts, like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn)
- Cloud Drives and other storage and file sharing, like iCloud, OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.
- Blogs and online businesses (domain name registrars, hosting services, online business accounts)
- Rewards accounts, like travel rewards, credit card points, retailer loyalty programs)
- Online shopping services, like Amazon eBay, Walmart, Etsy, etc.
- Gaming accounts, like Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, etc.
- Video services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, YouTube, Peacock, Sling TV, etc.
- Music services, like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, etc.
- Books, like Kindle, Audible, Apple Books, etc.
- Photo sharing and storage, like Shutterfly, Google Photos, iCloud Photos, Flickr, SmugMug, etc.
- Online dating accounts, like Match, Tinder, eHarmony, etc.
- Virtual currency (bitcoin, Ethereum, World of Warcraft)
Step 2 - Decide Who Gets What and Let Them Know
Many digital assets can’t be passed down. For example, when you buy a book or song online, you’re usually only buying a license that expires the same time you do. One potential workaround is to set up a family account that allows you to share your digital music and movies both now and after you die. Many travel program providers also insist in their Terms of Service that rewards aren’t your property, but their actual policies vary. Many airlines, for example, will transfer frequent flyer miles to the appropriate heirs.
Some companies, including Google and Facebook, allow you to designate someone to handle your account when you die. Others simply close or deactivate accounts when they learn of a death. Searching for the company name along with the phrase “what happens to my account when I die” can turn up its policies. Once you decide what you want to happen with each type of account or digital asset, write down your wishes. You can leave these instructions and the relevant login credentials in a letter, stored with your other estate planning documents, that can be given to the person you want to carry out those wishes: your digital executor.
Step 3 - Appoint Your "Digital Executor"
Your digital executor could be the same trusted person who settles the rest of your estate, but you may prefer to choose someone who is more tech-savvy to handle only that part of your estate. Talk to the person you choose first to ensure they’re willing to handle your digital estate, and then make sure they are capable of accessing the accounts and documents they’ll need.
Be sure to name your digital executor in your will or living trust. Depending on the laws in your state, your attorney may need to add additional language to your documents to address the disposition of your digital assets.