Life after death for your digital assets?
The current debate between the FBI and Apple about access to encrypted information has got me thinking about a challenging topic: What happens to digital assets when someone dies?
Ask yourself this: If a parent or other loved one were to pass away, does anyone know how to deactivate their Facebook page, manage ongoing online bill payments, or even unlock their computer or phone? Probably not.
Just think about all the photos, files, and financial information we have on line, on devices, and, more recently, in the cloud — all password-protected. These may have monetary, emotional, or simply practical value, but not planning for access could make a difficult time harder for those left behind.
Digital assets are a relatively new area of estate planning and should be explored with an advisor, especially as laws about access to them vary by state. But there are a few practical things you might consider doing to help make sure your online life is easier to deal with for those left behind.1. Make a list of your assets.
- Hardware: Include everything that you use to access or store digital data – such as computers, hard drives, tablets, cell phones, and cameras.
- Software: For starters, Word and Excel documents and tax filings.
- Social media and online presence: Not only Facebook and Twitter, but others such as blogs, online back-up sites, and digital storage sites.
- Online accounts: Financial accounts; email accounts; website and registration sites.
Although it is tempting, don’t make lists of your passwords. This might be a good time to consider using a password manager to simplify this task. Some of these apps also allow you to store one-time passwords that can be used to bypass two-factor authentication if needed. (Two-factor authentication is where you are asked to verify your identity, usually by means of a code sent to one of your devices. You then plug in that code on the screen on the new/unknown device to get access.)2. Select a successor.
Identify the person you’d want to have access to your digital assets. Provide this person the details of the online accounts and devices, and remind them to protect the information.3. Prepare and provide instructions.
There are things we can all do now to communicate our wishes, such as appoint a “legacy contact” on Facebook. Explore the sites you use to see what you can set up in the event of something happening to you. Here’s a great article from ZDNet that sets out some of the policies and options relating to social media in the event of a user’s death. If you want a site you’ve created to continue, for example a blog, you need to leave instructions explaining your wishes. Also if a site has monetary value, make sure your successor knows this.4. Keep your digital life tidy.
Another good practice – which can help prevent fraud, too – is to get into the habit of keeping your accounts, particularly email, tidy. Delete unwanted mail and unsubscribe from sites that you’re no longer interested in. Clear up your desktop files and delete obsolete information. Closing down accounts that are no longer needed will also help to protect your family from identity theft after you are gone. If you have files on your computer that you don’t want deleted, mark them “Do Not Delete” and place them in a separate folder.
Like any estate planning, planning for your digital assets’ legacy requires thought and time. Whether it’s for yourself or a loved one, actions you take now will make things easier down the line.