Think about how much of your life exists online.
Your e-mail accounts contain correspondence with friends, family, and colleagues, as well as important photos, videos, and PDF attachments. You probably have family photos, home movies, and other treasured memories saved to the cloud.
In addition to stuff of sentimental value, you may own other digital assets, too — things like e-books, music, movies, or website domains.
What will happen to all of that when you die? It’s a question experts say everyone should ponder. Because let’s face it: In this modern age of paperless living, unless you plan ahead before you depart for the Big Cloud in the Sky, your loved ones won’t have much of a paper trail to work with. That’s why it’s important to get your digital affairs in order before it’s too late.
Take, for example, what happened to John G. Ajemian, who died in a bicycle crash in Medfield in 2006. He was 43 years old and had no will. When his siblings asked Yahoo to release his e-mails to them, Yahoo refused, and a lengthy legal battle ensued.
According to Yahoo’s terms of service, e-mail accounts are nontransferable and any rights to them terminate upon the account holder’s death. When a loved one dies, the family can request that the deceased user’s Yahoo account be closed and deleted. But Yahoo will not hand over any passwords or grant anyone access to the account.
Apple’s iCloud service and Twitter follow a similar policy. The same thing goes for your iTunes library. You don’t own those songs; you only have a license to listen to them, said Karin Prangley, a wealth planner with Brown Brothers Harriman in Chicago. When you die, she said, “the license passes away with you.”
So . . . what should you do?
If you want to preserve any of your digital assets after you’re gone, you need to plan ahead.
“Think about the breadth of what’s in your digital life,” Prangley said. “Think of what should be saved, and what shouldn’t be saved.”
Download the content from your social media accounts, back-up your e-mail, and make copies of important photos, documents, and other personal records and save them in multiple locations (cloud storage, thumb drives, and external hard drives).
Just remember, portable storage devices won’t last forever, and you should replace them every few years to avoid data loss.
Financial experts at Merrill Edge also recommend printing out hard copies of your paperless statements at the end of each year.
1. Make a list and include instructions
Take inventory of all of your online accounts. That includes your e-mail, social media, cloud storage, financial accounts, and hotel and airline rewards programs, as well as subscriptions and services that are automatically billed to your credit card (Netflix, Hulu, E-ZPass toll transponders, etc.).
“In addition to listing your accounts, you should document your wishes regarding each of them, particularly e-mail and social media accounts,” said Frank Mulé, an estate planning attorney.
Think about what should be done with your social media profiles. Do you want them to disappear or be preserved for all to see? Do you want your private e-mails to be deleted?
“A properly maintained list can be an invaluable tool for those tasked with inventorying and managing your assets upon your death or incapacity,” Mulé said.
2. Plan your Google afterlife
If you use Gmail, YouTube, or any other of the many Web services provided by Google, you’re in luck. Unlike Yahoo or Twitter, Google offers an easy way for you to decide the fate of your account after you die. You can choose to delete your account, or you can pass your content along to someone else to download — or several people, if you wish.
Just log into your Google account and set up the Inactive Account Manager, and it will guide you step by step through the process. You can designate up to 10 people to be your trusted contacts, and you can choose which content they will have access to. You can even send each person a personalized message that they will receive when your account becomes inactive. (e.g., “Hey Joe, if you’re getting this, I’m probably long gone. Miss you, buddy. Here are my YouTube videos to remember me by.”)
3. Appoint a Facebook legacy contact
Facebook gives you two afterlife options: Have your account permanently deleted, or appoint a “legacy contact” to look after your memorialized account after you’re gone.
If you don’t pick either option, Facebook will make the decision for you.
“If you don’t choose to have your account permanently deleted, it will be memorialized if we become aware of your passing,” Facebook officials say. “We strongly suggest setting a legacy contact so your account can be managed once it’s memorialized.”
Your legacy contact won’t be able to log into your account or read your messages, but they will be able to write a pinned post on your profile page, and change your profile picture. You can also allow your legacy contact to download a copy of the content you’ve shared on Facebook.
“Memorialized accounts that don’t have a legacy contact can’t be changed,” says Facebook.
To add a legacy contact on Facebook, log in and go to Settings & Privacy, and then tap on Settings>Personal Information>Manage Account>Legacy Contact, and follow the on-screen instructions.
4. Protect your passwords
When you take inventory of your digital assets, you should include the log-in credentials for each of your accounts (i.e., your user names, passwords, PIN numbers, answers to security questions, and anything else that’s required to access the account). You should also make note of the passwords for your laptop, smartphone, tablets, and other devices.
When you’re done, don’t toss the list in your nightstand drawer. Such sensitive information needs to be kept in a safer place, said Prangley, the wealth planner, “to ensure it does not fall into the wrong hands.”
“Security needs to be top-of-mind,” Prangley said.
Prangley’s preferred method is to create a password-protected file that can be saved on your home computer and backed up on a USB drive. The password to access the list should be stored separately. Write it down on a piece of paper and put it with your estate planning documents in a locked safe or in a safe deposit box.
LastPass allows you to designate someone as an “emergency access contact,” which gives them the ability to login and manage your accounts if you were to die or become incapacitated.
5. Get legal advice
But whatever you do, do NOT include any user names or passwords in your will. “When you die, your will becomes a public document, which means that anyone can read it,” Everplans says.
Another thing to keep in mind when you’re dealing with online accounts: Terms of service agreements can vary from company to company, and they might prohibit someone from logging in to a deceased loved one’s account.
“Accessing accounts by ‘impersonating’ the account owner . . . may be a violation of the terms of service governing the account,” Mulé said.