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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Have You Considered Your Digital Afterlife?

 Today’s society is increasingly dependent on technology. With this dependence comes a growing online presence as well as all the data, documents and passwords associated with those online accounts… Most folks immediately assume that means just the various social media platforms on which each of us communicate. Yes, social media is included, but it’s so much more than that. In addition to websites, there are password-protected apps on your laptops and mobile devices. This includes your emails, online banking, shopping wish lists, loyalty programs, travel-booking sites, iTunes music libraries, bill paying, web-based photo albums, online file repositories, collaboration tools and more. Our digital footprints are scattered, and the list seems endless!

 Although each individual’s growing online presence can be a bit overwhelming while we are here on earth, have you considered what happens to your digital presence when you are no longer living? I think most folks would be shocked to learn that, under current law in many states, your heirs could be committing a crime by using what passwords you left them after you have passed away. Right now, it’s a legal gray zone… The US Computer Fraud and AbuseAct, created in 1986, makes it unlawful to “intentionally access” a computer without authorization and, then, obtain information from that access. Many propose that loved ones should get access to everything online immediately after one’s death unless otherwise specified in a will. Yet, as estate-planning lawyers have started battling to change this, it’s sparked quite a debate about who owns what on the Internet, who can access what in your digital afterlife and how to plan this transition.

Amidst all the confusion, though, there is good news… The Uniform Law Commission has created (and approved on July 16, 2014) the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Acts, designed to “let relatives access the social media counts of the deceased”, per NPR. This act overrides the terms of service of Internet companies who restrict account access to only the user and requires states to define details.

Still, gone are the days when whoever you designate to handle your estate can collect your mail for a few months to see all the accounts that need to be addressed… By not specifically addressing your digital afterlife, you risk issues with online bills or financials, loss of data (including sentimental items of photos, status updates, communications and more as well as items with monetary value, like music, movies, etc) and losing control of your personal legacy. However, how can you convey that applicable data to whichever personal representative you need handling it?!? Further, should your emails, digital photo albums and online accounts die when you do or can you pass them along to heirs as you do physical items, like a house, an automobile, stocks and prized possessions? While I am certainly not a lawyer and do not have all such expertise, I see the importance of addressing my digital afterlife and have been doing some research.

Where can YOU start and what can YOU do to address this situation? 



First, I recommend creating a digital estate plan. Like estate plans in the traditional sense, this would details your wishes about what you want done with what is yours once you are no longer living. Further, within this digital estate plan, appoint a Digital Executor, who is the person you designate to execute your wises for your digital assets. You’ll need to stipulate in your will that this Digital Executor should have a copy of your death certificate as proof for websites to take action.

Using a password manager to generate, save and autofill your many passwords would make life easier for your heirs. With one of these tools, the password manager’s password is the only one you must remember, protect and make available to your heirs. Plus, by using many of these, you can store vital documents (like your will) in a vault that's part of your password manager account. Great examples of a password manager that would help are LastPass, SplashID, 1Password, Roboform and Dashlane.

If you are uncomfortable with a password manager, as an alternative, you could utilize a password-protected memory stick or flash drive; however, storage of this device could prove tricky as there is often quite a delay before heirs are legally allowed to access your safe-deposit box. Therefore, if you choose the alternative of a password-protected memory stick, you’ll want to store that in a fireproof home safe.

Victoria Blachly, an estate-planning attorney with Samuels Yoelin Kantor in Portland, OR, recommends that you put all details about your online accounts in a VAIL or Virtual Asset Instruction Letter. Your VAIL should indicate which email or social media accounts to delete, conveying your wishes to your heirs for them to take the necessary next steps. Put a copy of your VAIL on a password-protected flash drive or CD, locking both the digital and hard-copy VAIL in a safe.

Further, with the aforementioned legal battles happening, it is very important to update your Power of Attorney document to include language specifically allowing your designated heir to access emails and other electronic data. If you’re incapacitated, this gives your designated person ability to manage your financial affairs.

As another alternative, there are online afterlife companies (or digital vaults) that pledge to store and distribute postmortem your designated digital assets, such as Cirrus Legacy, DeathSwitch, DeadSocial, Eterniam, IfIDie.org, PasswordBox, LivesOn, Planned Departure and SecureSafe. An assigned “digital heir” is provided your passwords once a valid death certificate and proof of the heir’s identity are received. Basically, they allow you to specify “beneficiaries” to receive information about your accounts once death is verified. However, I am extremely wary of these due to all the legal activity currently related to individuals’ digital afterlife. It’s a fluid situation right now, and I’m not convinced of these companies’ stability. Plus, what if you depend on a company for all of your digital data, documents and passwords but that company goes out of business?!?

An interesting substitute for the aforementioned online afterlife companies is Perpetu, which is a startup that was founded by an intellectual property lawyer and banker. You sign up for Perpetu with your email, Facebook or Twitter account; once logged in, you see a list of services you can add to Perpetu, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Gmail, Dropbox, Flickr, Instagram and GitHub. For example, you can schedule a final wall post for your Facebook profile or tell Perpetu to email a download of your Facebook photos, status updates and private message to a selected someone. You can select repositories on GitHub to make public after you die or tell Perpetu to email a download of your LinkedIn contacts to a designated person. Unlike the online afterlife companies I mentioned earlier, Perpetu doesn’t ask users for their passwords; instead, you select what information is downloaded and sent to your contacts.

Websites want to honor their privacy agreements with users. Further, thus far, the legal system has made clear that its desire is to respect the wishes of technology users; however, unless you communicate your specific wishes, the courts and society in general can only guess, assume and infer what those wishes might be.

Assuming you are able to use a password manager or password-protected device to pass along to your heirs the data, documents and passwords associated with the accounts in your online presence, there are certainly many “next steps” to consider, particularly as different sites have various approaches to resolving your digital afterlife…
  • -       Facebook: In January 2014, Facebook altered its digital afterlife policy to turn a deceased person’s page into “memorial mode” and make it publicly available, but shutting down a deceased person’s Facebook account requires the user’s birth certificate, death certificate and proof the person submitting the request is the lawful representative of that deceased user.
  • -       Google: Google Inactive Account Manager allows you to choose a trusted contact who will be notified by email and phone when your account has been inactive after a specified length of time and who can also be given access to the Google accounts you choose.
  • -       Twitter: In its website’s support area, Twitter offers a contact form to assist in deactivating, not transferring, the deceased’s account.
  • -       Yahoo: In America, Yahoo accounts are nontransferable but can be terminated after submitting a detailed request; alternatively, in Japan, Yahoo has created “Yahoo Ending” to send an email the user has prepared to as many as 200 addresses and open a “memorial space” board for people to leave condolence messages.
The legal battle related to folks’ digital assets is complicated by many details. For example, certain online accounts can be worth real money, like a popular blog’s site or a gaming avatar that acquired significant status online. Further, some individuals would prefer that their social media profiles become “memorialized” rather than deactivated or deleted. All of this confusion and “gray area” are why it’s vital to communicate your wishes for your digital assets to your loved ones, especially whoever you designate to handle legalities.

Please start by taking some time to think about these items:
  • -       What do you envision for your social media content after you die?
  • -       What would you like to happen to your blog when you die?
  • -       Do you want your Digital Executor to make an announcement online?
  • -       Where would you like your obituary posted?
  • -       Would you like a guestbook activated on your website?
  • -       Would you like your website, blog and / or social media presence to turn into a virtual memorial when you die?
  • -       Do you have a list of all websites on which you have a presence as well as the passwords for accessing those accounts? Where is it?
Expand your thought-process to cover all you can think of. Then, once you have a good feel for your wishes, please write them down and be sure to share them.

Want to see more about the items discussed here? You can view a recent interview I did with Julie Coraccio of Clearing the Clutter Inside & Out by clicking here, and stay tuned for an edited version of the video soon.

As you proceed in addressing your digital afterlife, you might find some resources helpful… Evan Carroll and John Romano have written Your Digital Afterlife to assist, and their website of TheDigitalBeyond.com provides many different strategies you can explore. Alternatively, social media and marketing consultant Adele McAlear offers DeathAndDigitalLegacy.com for more information. Investigating the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act and how your state is moving forward on its approval will help to localize your actions. Plus, review this US Government blog post about creating a social media will. Finally, seeking advice from a lawyer in your region is most highly suggested.

Do you have a plan for your digital afterlife? Have you shared your wishes with a loved one? If not, what can you do now to prepare?


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