Facebook. LinkedIn. Instagram. Twitter. You’re likely on at least one of these social media platforms.
You share funny little quips, inspirational quotes, and photos of your grandchildren and your dogs. Some of what you share are likely cherished memories.
But what happens to all of that when you die?
Those items, and much more, are all a part of your digital estate. And more and more often, older adults are choosing to take part in digital estate planning to protect those valuable assets in the event of their passing.
Here’s what you need to know:
What is a digital estate?
Your digital estate is made up of two key parts: Your digital legacy and your digital assets. Often, all three terms are used interchangeably, although they do mean three very distinct things.
Your digital legacy is any information available online, about you, following your death. Often, this is information that you’ve personally published including:
- Social media profiles
- Photo albums
- Interactions with other people (such as comments on social media posts)
Digital assets are possessions that you have purchased and that are stored or available online. Examples include:
- Movies and MP3s (through services like Amazon Prime or Apple Music)
- Websites (domain names and hosting)
- Software (such as Photoshop)
- Seller’s accounts (such as Ebay or Etsy)
Where are digital assets and digital legacy stored?
Digital assets and someone’s digital legacy are often spread across two main locations:
1) Online services (social media sites, email, blogs, etc.)
2) Digital devices (laptops and computers, smart phones, tablets, etc.)
It is important to designate someone to handle your online estate once you’ve passed and to provide them with the information necessary to handle your affairs. At a minimum, they will need a list of everywhere you have an online account (bank, credit cards, web services, etc.) and everywhere you have an online presence (social media, blog, email, and so on). If you choose, you may also give them a list of logins and passwords.
How can I get my digital affairs in order?
Digital asset management isn’t a routine part of settling an estate just yet, but it should be. Because we live in a digital age (where much of what we do happens online), we must prepare our loved ones for handling those assets when we pass away. Unfortunately, most people are not equipped with the necessary information.
There are two key components to managing a digital estate:
- Bank and other financial accounts
- Social media and email accounts
Experts suggest including your digital assets in your will and creating a separate document with instructions for your digital legacy. It is important to note that different online platforms have different procedures for what happens in the event of your passing, and you should be familiar with all of them.
For example, Facebook has a feature which allows family members of the deceased to memorialize their page. Google, on the other hand, won’t do anything until they have a copy of the death certificate.
You, or your family, may also consider hiring a digital legacy firm. Not only will they help keep cherished memories alive, but they can protect your accounts from fraudulent activity once you’ve passed.
Why is it necessary to include my digital legacy in the estate planning process?
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal,
In 1986, Congress passed a law forbidding consumer electronic-communications companies from disclosing content without its owner’s consent or a government order like a police investigation. Although that law predates the rise of the commercial Internet, courts and companies have largely interpreted it to mean that the families can’t force companies to let them access the deceased’s data or their accounts.
In layman’s terms: Once you’ve passed, your family can’t legally gain access to your online accounts such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Gmail. By losing access to those accounts, your family will also lose access to memories and mementos they may want to hold onto, such as photos, videos, status updates, and more.
Keeping your digital estate safe
Unfortunately, there are many people out there who will take advantage of a deceased person’s online presence for their own gain. There are many known instances of hackers accessing personal information and using it to open fraudulent financial accounts or commit other illegal activity.
As part of the planning process, you should give your family or loved ones all the necessary information to keep your online presence safe. Your instructions should include:
- Limit the details shared in obituaries
- Report deaths to all financial accounts
- Provide death certificates to the three major credit bureaus, as well as the IRS
- Check credit reports for fraudulent activity a few weeks after you’ve passed
- Remove your name from all joint accounts
- Memorialize or delete all social media profiles as soon as possible
- Consider signing up for a service that will scan the internet for mentions of your name – this will help prevent fake social media accounts being created in your likeness
Keeping your online legacy safe and secure will limit the hardship your loved ones must face during a difficult time. When you pass, they will want to take time to mourn and grieve – and having to deal with a hacker taking over your online presence or accessing your bank account will make a difficult time even worse.
By providing them with the tools and information they need, you can help make the process a little bit easier.