What Is a Digital Estate Plan? (And Why Do You Need One?)

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You already know an estate plan can make it easier to transfer your financial assets and physical property after death. But do you have a plan in place for your digital assets? Digital estate planning is a way to make provisions for all of your online accounts, from Amazon to Zillow, after your death, as well as clear instructions on what to do with each account.

Why you need a digital estate plan

Do you want your blog to remain published indefinitely after you die? Your social media accounts closed? Digital photos distributed to all of your family members? Your Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp chat histories erased?

Think about it: So much of your most important and sensitive information lives online—on dozens upon dozens of websites. To wit: A survey from Dashlane found that the average American has a staggering 130 different accounts registered to a single email address.

Some states, like Delaware, have passed legislation to guarantee that executors or next of kin are granted access, but that’s not true in most places. And even if your loved ones are able to log on, without clear instructions they might be left wondering what exactly to do with all of the photos, tweets, blog entries, and videos you leave behind. A bit of upfront planning can help ensure your digital assets end up exactly where you want.

Appoint a digital executor

Just as your will appoints an executor to handle all of your physical and financial assets, you can also appoint a digital executor to deal with your digital assets. This can be one and the same person, but it’s doesn’t have to be—the main criteria are that you pick someone you trust who is also technically competent. You can appoint the person in your will, but keep in mind that not all states recognize the role of digital executor, so talk to your attorney about state-specific legislation.

Make a digital inventory

You’ll want to inventory all of your digital assets and how the executor can access them after your death. Of course, the most low-tech way to do that is to simply jot down all of your usernames, passwords, and PINs on a notepad and stash it away it in a vault or safe-deposit box, with clear instructions on how to access that detailed in your will.

However, with security experts recommending we change our passwords every six to 12 months, that’s a whole lot of record-keeping to maintain (especially if you do have some 130 online accounts to your name). You could streamline the process a bit with a password-protected Word document, but keep in mind that it will still require maintenance. Setting a reminder to update the file monthly or quarterly can be the difference between a useful tool, if needed, and a dusty doc that’s out of date.

Consider using digital tools

Another option is to use a third-party password manager, such as LastPass, which allows you to designate an emergency contact who can request access to your account if you’re incapacitated. SafeBeyond not only ensures access to your accounts after death, but it will also send messages you’ve pre-written to your friends and family members at specified times. But keep in mind digital legacy companies like these aren’t a fail-safe—it’s always possible they could go out of business.

An increasing number of individual websites are also making it easier to pass on an account (or delete it entirely) when a loved one dies. Facebook gives users the option of turning a profile into a “memorialized” account, in addition to appointing a “legacy contact who will administer the account on their behalf. Alternately, users can opt to simply have their profile erased. Twitter, meanwhile, allows only executors to request an account deletion.

Email service provider policies differ as well: Google, for instance, will entertain requests from authorized parties (with the proper documentation) to access account materials and also provides an “Inactive Account Manager function, which allows your account to be shared with a designated party after a certain period of inactivity. Yahoo’s policy, on the other hand, is to deny access all together, allowing loved ones to only deactivate the account. To know for sure how to grant access to each of your inboxes, check your email provider’s service terms.

Bottom line

No matter which method (or mix of methods) you utilize to pass on your digital assets, be sure to leave a provision in your will appointing a digital executor as well as clear, written instructions to this person on what to do with each account in your digital inventory. And don’t forget to leave important ancillary information, like your computer password, WiFi password, and smartphone PIN, so that your executor can actually access the assets you leave behind.  

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