In the past, we kept albums full of snapshots, vinyl records and shoeboxes full of correspondence. Now our photos are all on Flickr and IPhoto, our music is downloaded from ITunes and our correspondence is email via Yahoo or Google. Naomi Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University, stated that most adults have 20-25 accounts on the internet. And many of those accounts are for banking or investments.
Have you given instructions to your family on what to do with your internet accounts if you should die? And do they even know how to access those accounts? User names, passwords, internet addresses?
The family of Ricky Rash, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2011, discovered how difficult it was to recover information from their deceased son’s internet account. In an effort to understand why he had taken his own life, they requested but were refused access to his Facebook account.
Facebook claimed that according to the Stored Communications Act of 1986 – the federal law that governs the protection of a person’s electronic data – even the account of a minor is protected from access by his parents or anyone else. Other sites and providers interpret the legislation this way, making access all but impossible.
There are only five states that have taken any steps to help recover the internet data of a deceased person—Indiana, Idaho and Oklahoma legislation covers social media and blogging accounts, while Connecticut and Rhode Island legislation covers only email.
What does this mean for you? It is critical that you create a digital estate plan. The listing of internet accounts needs to be comprehensive. Information must include:
- the name of the account
- the contents of the account
- the URL address
- instructions for the disposition of the account including the person to oversee such disposition.
I have created a new spreadsheet to gather this information. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send it to you.
There is a whole new industry that has been created to service your digital estate including legacylocker.com, a new digital estate planning service. You can create an account and then enter your user names, passwords and wishes for each of your digital assets. You can specify an heir for each account; Legacy Locker will provide heirs with information after the account holder’s death is verified.
There are also online memorial services to celebrate your client’s life, including www.Bcelebrated.com, and www.MyWonderfulLife.com. These services enable your clients to create their own memorials before they pass away. Facebook and Twitter also offer these services for family members.
The importance of having a digital estate plan will increase as more and more of our assets (and access to assets) are online. Gradually laws will evolve to give family members access to deceased loved ones’ accounts. It is important to prepare your clients for the disposition of their digital assets now so that family members will not be unpleasantly surprised when they attempt to uncover them.
If you want to explore digital estate planning in more detail read Evan Carroll’s excellent book Your Digital Afterlife. This book was the source of many of the sites I mention in this article.