When we think about dying, we may think about the people we will leave behind or to whom we’d like to leave our assets. But do you ever think about what happens to your digital assets when you die? All of us have a digital life – our Facebook account, our email address, our online banking – and for every digital account, we also have a password. Many of us have digital assets, too – online bank accounts, a PayPal account, and music or movies we’ve downloaded.
Have you thought about what you’d like to keep or delete? Much of our lives are now lived digitally, and yet many people fail to consider this in their estate planning.
Digital Assets: Your Social Media Accounts
Nine out of 10 Australians have a social media account, but 83% have not discussed with their loved ones what they want to happen to their accounts when they die. Only 3% of Australians who have a Will have decided what to do with their social media accounts after their death. The typical web user has 25 online accounts, ranging from email to social media profiles and bank accounts.
Policies surrounding death vary among some of the internet’s most prominent companies:
- Twitter will deactivate an account upon the request of an estate executor or a verified immediate family member once a copy of a death certificate and other pertinent information is provided.
- Facebook has two options. First, the site enables profiles to be turned into memorials. The account is locked, but other users can still interact with the deceased’s profile by posting comments, photos and links. The other option is to remove the account, upon special request by an immediate family member or executor.
- Google has recently established a new feature called “inactive account manager,” which prompts users to decide the fate of their accounts should they die. If the account user does not make a selection, Google’s policies are pretty strict. It warns survivors that obtaining access to a deceased person’s email account will be possible only “in rare cases.”
In October, 2012, 29-year-old British soldier Edward Drummond-Baxter was killed in an insider attack during his first deployment to Afghanistan. But his Facebook page lived on, reviving painful memories for his sister Emily. She says, “If you’ve got someone who’s died, you don’t necessarily want a photo to appear in your news feed saying “Connect with this person” or, you know, “Happy birthday, this person”.”
Emily had to write to Facebook and prove to them that her brother had died. But there was more to Edward’s digital life than Facebook. He bought music, movies and TV shows on iTunes, but Apple wouldn’t transfer ownership of these files to Emily. And when she tried to take over his email account, Google refused to reveal his password for privacy reasons.
Digital Assets and Identity Theft
Police warn it’s not just about giving family members the ability to deal with your accounts once you have died. Brian Hay from the Queensland Police, Fraud and Cyber Crime squad says a forgotten Facebook page or email account could be hacked and identities stolen.
He says the dead are easy targets. “The reality is you’re more vulnerable because you can’t speak up and say, “Hang on, that new addition to that page is not me. That that information is no longer about me or my family.””
In America, for $10, identity thieves can access the full name, Social Security number and other personal information of a dead person through a list of millions of deceased Americans, known as the Death Master File.
The Social Security Administration created the file to help financial institutions and businesses prevent identity theft, by using the file to cross-reference applicants or customers to make sure they are not using a deceased person’s identity. But Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said the agency is “inadvertently facilitating tax fraud” by allowing any member of the general public to look up personal details about anyone who has passed away and potentially steal their identity. an example of a Tennessee woman who was fined $110,000 and sentenced to 108 months in prison this year for obtaining names from the Death Master File and preparing fraudulent tax returns to get undeserved refunds deposited into her bank account.
A recent report from fraud prevention firm ID Analytics showed that identity thieves also steal the personal information to apply for credit cards, cell phones and anything else requiring a credit check. About 2.4 million deceased Americans each year get their identities stolen each year — amounting to a rate of more than 2,000 thefts per day.
The lack of digital death in this circumstance could be ruinous for the estate or family members, particularly if identity thieves rack up huge debts or obtain access to bank accounts.
Until the legal procedures are made clear, estate planning professionals suggest that you should treat their digital assets as they would any other asset. We recommend that users appoint someone to be in control, make a list of accounts and passwords, and give clear instructions on how to handle each individual account.
How To Prepare Your Digital Assets
Appoint a digital executor. Your family or closest friends will be able to manage your online presence and shut down your accounts easily if they have your passwords. Question is, are you really willing to compromise your privacy and security? Even if they’re not the type to snoop on you, there’s always a chance that the security details you give out might get lost, stolen or hacked. Rather than giving your loved ones copies of your usernames and passwords, you can talk to your lawyer about appointing a digital executor who’ll get all of them if something unfortunate does happen.
Use a password aggregator/service that you can update throughout your life, or keep a handwritten list in a fireproof vault. Since it’ll be hard keeping a login list up to date if it’s with a lawyer, you can sign up for a secure service that lets you tweak it when you need to. That way, your attorney will only need to possess a master password to give your digital executor. You could choose a password manager like LastPass, sign up for a separate cloud storage account or look up one of the services that offer to keep your credentials under virtual lock and key for this very purpose — just make sure it can be trusted.
Remember to think about your hardware, too. Do you want loved ones to be able to log into your computer and phone, most of which are password protected? If so, you’ll need to make sure they have the passwords.
Estate planning is a complex process that needs to be reviewed every five years or so – but we can make it easy for you. Contact us today for your free, 10-minute phone consultation.