The Information Age has complicated the process of end-of-life planning. Not only do we need to focus on planning the funeral and dividing up our estate among our loved ones, but now, we also have to decide what we are going to do about the abundance of online information that we possess. We have accumulated enormous amounts of online assets, and when we pass away, a portion of our identity is left floating around in cyberspace, where it will wander aimlessly for a while before being shut down by online companies that clean up their sites.
For this reason, you may want to start outlining your plans for your digital estate plan. Below are some general tips and guidelines that can get you thinking about how you might want to arrange for the distribution of your digital assets.
Create an Inventory of Your Digital Material: Before doing anything else, make sure that you are aware of all of your online material. This seems obvious, but can be a lot harder than it sounds. Social media accounts, email information, blogs, pictures and videos…there is a lot of information out there, and you want to make sure that you acknowledge the entirety of your digital estate before you go any further.
Consider using an online resource or app as a tool to organize your assets. New apps and websites are available that allow you to store all of your assets in a digital space. They function as a sort of bank for your digital assets. This is an easy way to compile all of your material so that it can be easily accessible to loved ones. While this can be a useful tool, be sure to do some thorough research on the company you choose to make sure that it is reputable.
Construct a list with all of your user names and passwords and store it in a safe place. You may even want to create two separate lists, splitting the username and password information and storing them in two separate locations for greater security. Another option is to use a code that you and your next of kin both understand, but that would be difficult for a stranger to decipher. Be sure to update these lists every time you update your passwords. Be sure to keep this information out of your will because the will ends up in the public records, which raises safety concerns. Don’t forget to include your computer and phone pass codes! Many people overlook the fact that after they are gone, these devices (and all the information and photos stored on them) may be inaccessible to their loved ones without those very important codes.
Begin looking at individual companies’ policies: Unfortunately, there is still a lot of legal gray area concerning the distribution of digital information after the death of an individual. Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn… all of these companies have different policies for dealing with the material of a person who has passed. Familiarize yourself with the individual polices so that you can determine the best course of action.
Provide Instructions: Once everything has been planned, appoint a representative who will act on your behalf and follow your instructions regarding your online information. Though username and password information should not go in the will, you can designate your representative in the will and provide general instructions. Be in contact with your representative to make sure that he or she knows where and how to obtain your personal information.
Make Sure that Loved Ones Know to Act Fast: Many companies have a legal right to the ownership of your account after you die, and often the account is merely shut down and the material lost. However, if your family members act fast to access the material before the company deletes the account, or if they contact the company, they can find a way to use the material. If it’s a social media account, they can post a final tribute or retrieve some precious photos. If it’s an email or an account with important personal information, they may be able to access the account to transfer some of the information before the account is terminated.
Check your State’s Laws: As is the case with so many legal issues, the planning of your digital estate may vary to some degree based on the laws of your state. Some states have specific laws for handling the online material of a deceased person, while many states have no such laws regarding these issues. To ensure that you’re doing things according to the book, look into the guidelines of your individual state.
With an ever-increasing portion of our lives being dedicated to cyberspace, it’s important that you begin to think about the management of your online content. By developing a plan and organizing your thoughts and wishes, you can make things a little bit easier on your loved ones after you pass.