What happens to your digital footprint?

If you’re not living at least part of your life online, then chances are you’re not living in the 21st century – which hey, cool… if you’ve invented a time machine, we’d love a lift back to simpler times. While you probably don’t have that time machine, we’re betting you do have a smart phone filled with pics of your dog (or maybe kids? ok cats). Perhaps you dabble on at least a few social media sites, or at the very least have an email account for all your coupons.

However heavy or light your digital footprint is, trust us, it’s there. And unlike your diaries, shoeboxes full of cash, and love letters from 8th grade, your digital assets won’t be neatly swept into a cardboard box after you pass.

So have you ever wondered exactly what happens to your email and social media accounts after you die? Or, God forbid, your bitcoin wallet? If you’re unsettled by these questions, then take a moment to read up on how to make sure your digital property is managed the right away after you’re gone.

First things first. What are my digital assets? 

Smart phone apps and digital assets.

Fair question. Your digital assets are any electronically stored records that you “own, license, or control”. Huh?

Here are some common examples of digital assets:

  • The contents of your email and photo sharing accounts (Gmail, Flickr, Google Photos, etc.);
  • Online/cloud storage accounts (iCloud, Google Drive, DropBox, etc.);
  • Posts and profile info on your social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube, etc.);
  • Blogs or websites you manage;
  • Files stored on hard drives and flash drives;
  • Electronic or digital property, such as website domain addresses and cryptocurrency (i.e. bitcoin);
  • Information (text messages, documents, photos, videos, etc) stored on your phone, computer, tablet, digital camera, digital music player, e-reader, etc;
  • Online accounts containing money, credit, or rewards (i.e. frequent flier programs, credit card rewards programs, PayPal, Venmo, etc.).

Careful though, these other things aren’t technically your digital assets because they don’t belong to you (womp womp):

  • Media or software that you’ve purchased a license to use, e.g. your Spotify, iTunes library, Kindle books, or your copy of Microsoft Office;
  • Many of your actual social media or email accounts. 
    Wait. WHAT? We know. Sadly, you’ve only been granted a license to use those accounts, which often aren’t transferable to others.

Three ways to ensure that your digital assets are protected:

Good news, there’s a lot you can do to make sure your digital assets are protected as part of your estate plan, and that the right friends and family can access what you’d like them to after you’re no longer here. Follow all three steps below for a comprehensive approach.

1. Discuss digital assets explicitly in your will:

Last will and testament being edited for digital estate.

First, be sure to grant clear and express permission for your executor (or anyone else) to access your digital assets after you’re gone. You’ll want to include specific language permitting this in your Last Will and Testament. Need some help? Here’s some sample language. If you want your executor to be able to view the contents of your accounts – like email or text messages – be sure to say so explicitly in your will.

Caution: Since your will becomes a public document during probate, you should keep your actual account information and passwords in a separate private document for your executor (see below).

2. Leave account details and instructions for your executor:

This is key! Beyond leaving the authority to do so in your will, it’s important that you actually provide your executor with the ability to both identify and access your digital assets, as well as instructions on what to do with all of it.

You may choose to put together a written document that lists all of your accounts and devices, where they’re located, and how each can be accessed (i.e. usernames, security keys, and passwords). The document should state what you want your executor to do with each account/device. Delete or deactivate? Download and share? Be as thorough as possible. Make sure to keep your document up-to-date and stored in a safe place where your executor will be able to find it (perhaps with a copy of your will).

Another option is to use a password manager or legacy leaving service to keep your account details and passwords, like LastPassEverplans, or Qwill. You can then grant your executor (or friends and family) access directly to your accounts through those programs.

3. Utilize online tools and settings within your online accounts:

Finally, educate yourself about the account options and procedures that are directly available from your online providers. Some examples are below:

  • Google: Google’s Inactive Account Manager allows you to control what will happen to your account after it’s been “inactive” for a designated amount of time. Choose to have it deleted, or for certain data (like your photos, emails, or chat records) to be automatically shared with people that you name as “Trusted Contacts”.
  • Facebook: Here you have the option of allowing your account to be “Memorialized” or deleted upon notice of death. The Memorialize option also allows you to appoint a “Legacy Contact” to manage certain aspects of your account, such as friend requests and changing your profile picture, but not reading your messages.
  • Instagram: Similar to Facebook, Instagram allows an account to be “Memorialized” or deleted, though it doesn’t allow anyone else to login to/manage your account (no legacy contact). You also aren’t able to set up your account to default to either of those options before you die – you’ll need a family member or executor to do it later on.
  • Twitter and LinkedIn: Both permit verified family members to request removal of a deceased person’s account.
  • Frequent Flyer/Credit Card Reward/Hotel Loyalty Accounts: The policies vary based upon the provider, but generally, most rewards aren’t transferable after death (hotel points are a bit more liberal). But there are some ways to work around this! You can leave your account details to your loved ones so that they can log-in directly to use or transfer any remaining points/rewards before your account is shut down.

Not too hard, right? That’s it for now… you can go back to choosing an Instagram filter for your latest puppy shot with the confidence that it’ll be safe forever.


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