When TV and movie stars die, their work lives on – if they're lucky, indefinitely, in reruns. When the non-famous go, their work often endures, too – in less-glamorous, arguably more private ways.
You've probably noticed. Perhaps a distant colleague passes on, or worse, a close family member, and then a few days or weeks later, a social media site like Facebook suggests you wish him or her a happy birthday – or LinkedIn suggests you two finally connect. It kind of begs the question: While we often think about our bank accounts and who should get the homestead or baseball card collection before we go, shouldn't we consider our digital assets as well?
In a word: probably. It depends how active your life is online. Robert Perez, a Magnolia, Texas-based on-call attorney for Rocket Lawyer, an online legal service, says the "worst-case scenario" of doing nothing is "where someone invests substantial resources into digital assets ... but all of these go into eternal limbo when the owner dies and benefits no one – all because no one else had the means to access them – or even know they existed."
[Read: The Dangers of DIY Estate Planning .]
So if you haven't really thought about checking out permanently (and who wants to think about that?) here are some things to consider about your digital afterlife.
Assign a digital executor. This can be the person in charge of your estate, or it may be someone different. "Preferably someone tech-savvy," Perez urges.
He continues: "Once you have decided on a digital executor, you need to provide him/her with a complete inventory of digital assets, including accounts, login IDs and password information, upon your death. Obviously this information should be stored in a secure location, to prevent the 'bad guys' from gaining access to it." (More on the best places to store passwords later.)
Perez has a warning for anyone thinking of going this route. "Whatever you do," he says, "don't include password information in your will itself, as it becomes a public record when it is admitted to probate."
Some decisions you'll want to make. If you're an avid Facebook user, decide what should be done with your Facebook account. Many people turn their loved one's Facebook page into a memorial for them, where people can comment on their wall and share anecdotes. (Verified immediate family members can also request removal of the account.) Twitter and LinkedIn have pages where people can go to get their loved one's accounts shut down, and as you'd expect, you need proof of the person's death. With Twitter, for example, you'll need a copy of the death certificate and a copy of your own government-issued ID.
Music is a significant financial outlay for some people. If you've sunk a lot of money into an iTunes account, you can't pass on the downloads, but you can leave behind the gadgets the iTunes songs are on, and make sure whomever you're leaving them to has the password. E-books aren't transferable, either – you can't split up the collection and will your gardening e-books to your cousin and your mystery e-books to your daughter – but a loved one can inherit your Amazon.com account along with the username and password.
Photos are also an important consideration. Those alone might be your reason for documenting your digital assets and making sure a password is provided to a loved one for various sites.
Where to keep your usernames and passwords. Your options are becoming more and more diverse. Perez likes eWallet, a generic term for a computer software application that allows consumers to pay for purchases electronically and has a password manager and secure storage database. He also likes online safe deposit boxes, including Legacy Locker and SecureSafe. "This software enables you to store all of your login and password information in one place, so that you only need to remember a single master password to access your accounts," he says. "If you leave the location of this data file and master password in a secure location for your digital executor or other trusted person to retrieve, they should be able to access all of your accounts without difficulty."
[Read: 8 Ways to Create Stronger Passwords .]
Upon receiving a death certificate, PasswordBox (www.passwordbox.com) will send all of your information and log-in user names and passwords to your designated digital executor. Small wonder all of these sites have been cropping up. "Five years ago, we were storing photos of our families on DVD, and now they're on an iPad or an iPod or in the cloud," says Dan Robichaud, the CEO of Passwordbox.
You might be able to handle some of your digital passwords on your own, even after you're gone – in a sense. Gmail recently introduced a feature called Inactive Account Manager, which you can set up so that if your account remains inactive for, say, three months or a year, the account will be automatically deleted – or you can have your emails and password information sent to someone you choose.
Much is still being ironed out. Right now, if someone dies unexpectedly, and digital assets aren't accounted for in a will, "typically," Perez says, "no one will be able to access their online accounts, and these digital assets go into a kind of limbo. Some states have tried to pass laws giving the executor of a person's estate the ability to take control of digital assets as well, but these efforts have met with varying levels of success. As a result, the law in this area is still unclear."
[See: 12 Steps to Designing Your Financial Roadmap .]
In the meantime, "the best way to get these digital issues resolved is for the public to petition the companies to respond and come up with solutions," says Charles Palmer, executive director of the Center for Advanced Entertainment and Learning Technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania.
In some cases, even if a loved one has a password, it can be technically illegal to use it, some experts have noted, simply because the terms and conditions state that nobody else is allowed to use the account.
Palmer also makes an observation that avid Facebook users and Facebook executives might not appreciate: "This is an issue, but companies are working on how to manage our digital assets after we die. And who knows what problems we have now that won't even be an issue in a few years? With the speed of how fast technology changes, it may be that five to seven years from now, there isn't a Facebook."
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