Planning for the Digital Afterlife
You’re diligent. You’re a planner. You’ve worked with your attorney and you’ve got financial and medical powers of attorney and a will. You’ve done everything you can to make sure that your loved ones can take care of you and your “stuff” when the time eventually comes….or have you?
Your “stuff,” your property, isn’t as simple a concept as it once was. In the old days, the people could go into your study or office and, with a little detective work, figure out most of what they needed to know to handle your affairs. For better or for worse, those days are quickly disappearing. Many of us now have “stuff” that can’t be easily found by riffling through desk drawers and file cabinets. Instead, our stuff is up in the cloud. Maybe you have a Facebook page or a Twitter account. Maybe you don’t have either of these, but do have an e-mail address and you’ve bought books or clothes on Amazon and a 75 foot yacht on Ebay. The powers traditionally conferred in a Power of Attorney don’t always allow the attorney-in-fact to manage these accounts.
In Washington, the law isn’t much help on the digital frontier. There are no laws specifically addressing third party access to on-line accounts and control is thus largely in the hands of the providers. The Terms of Service that we all “click to agree” usually contain limitations on access to and/or transfer of account information. Companies will likely follow their own rules, particularly if your estate planning documents don’t grant specific powers for managing on-line/digital accounts.
So, what’s a person to do? One of the most important first steps is to make an inventory of all your digital assets with usernames and passwords. This includes your personal assets such as pictures or documents stored on sites like Flickr, Google Docs or iCloud; it includes your social media assets such as Facebook, Twitter and all of your e-mail accounts; it includes your financial accounts at banks and brokerages as well as your credit cards and on-line payment sites such as Paypal; and finally, it includes all of your business and commercial accounts including things like your home utility accounts and accounts with shopping sites such as Amazon.
I know. I know. I just violated the prime directive of internet security. We’ve all been told a thousand times, NEVER write down your usernames and passwords! One method of protecting yourself when creating such a list is to create one list of usernames and a separate list of passwords and then keep them in separate places. Another way to create security for this list is to maintain it electronically and use encryption which can only be undone by you or you designated
agent. The trick with all of this is that you must regularly update your lists and you must make sure a trusted family member or friend knows how to access your list.
A second step to take is to closely read Terms of Service and end-of-life policies, especially for social media and e-mail accounts. This is likely to be a mind-numbing activity, but some providers, such as Facebook and Google, now offer users specific choices within these policies as to how accounts will be handled after inactivity or death. Of course, the importance of your planning documents is not to be overlooked. Although there are no guarantees, having specific language in powers of attorney and a will may go a long way in convincing an on-line provider to grant access or management powers over a third party’s accounts.
As always, the Elder Law Offices of Barry M. Meyers is here to answer your questions and help in any way that we can.
Barry M. Meyers
David M. Neubeck
Elder Law Offices of Barry M. Meyers
DISCLAIMER: The content of this newsletter is: for information purposes only, subject to change by government agencies, should not be relied upon as current, and, does not constitute legal advice. Reading this newsletter does not establish an attorney-client relationship.