Long gone are the days when your cherished memories were stored in handwritten letters and boxes of Polaroid photos. These days a person’s legacy is primarily housed online across a string of websites and social-media apps bursting with photos, messages, and more.
But while online life continues to expand, few people think about what will happen to that treasure trove of memories and information if they die or become incapacitated. For example, have you ever thought about what happens to your email after you pass away? How about your Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts? And what about your photos and files on Dropbox, Google Drive, and other services?
These services introduce a variety of new estate-planning issues. To name a few: Who can access the accounts? How can they obtain that access? And what do you want that person to do once they have access? Do you want them to close out the account right away, send notifications to your contacts that you passed away, or leave it running as is? And if the account is left active, what should be done if your account gets hacked, leading your friends and family to get messages from “you” after you’re gone?
As the world increasingly runs through phones, tablets, laptops, and online platforms, it’s helpful to have a plan for your digital accounts and assets. To create that plan, follow these steps.
Start by getting a lay of the land. Do that by making an inventory of your online accounts and social media. List the apps and websites you use; and then compile usernames, pins and passwords as well as security questions and answers.
Next, pick a digital agent to handle your accounts if you die or become incapacitated. Often, this person will also be the person you designate as the executor of your will, the trustee of your trust, or one of your agents under financial or medical powers of attorney. But whoever it ends up being, choose someone trustworthy who preferably has a bit of technological savvy.
After that, create a document appointing your chosen agent and giving them authority to act on your behalf. Sometimes this document is called a social-media will. But whatever name is used, the document should provide instructions for what you want to happen.
Sometimes this document will also include the inventory that you prepared in step one. But since the document might become a public record, it can be a good idea to forego attaching the inventory and instead give that information directly to your agent. Or, if you want to keep that information confidential for as long as possible, don’t give the inventory to your agent. Instead, tell them how to find your inventory when you die or become incapacitated.
To sum up, your email and social-media accounts can survive long after you’ve gone. If you don’t mind them continuing on as zombies, then you probably don’t need to plan ahead. But if you’d like more control than that, it can be wise to set up a social-media will in addition to the usual assortment of estate-planning documents.
This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be taken as legal advice. For your specific case, consult a lawyer.