If you pass away unexpectedly and have no plan for what happens to your online accounts (your "digital assets"), your Personal Representative may be left with a huge mess to sort out. A Personal Representative ("PR") is someone you designate in your Will to help settle your estate. They gather all your assets, pay bills/debts, and distribute those assets to family or whomever is designated under your Will.
So, what happens to your digital assets when you die? How does your PR gain access your email accounts, cloud storage, iTunes, PayPal, eBay, gaming profiles, etc? Here is a quick rundown of a potentially complicated situation:
Many Terms of Service (remember that long legal thing that you quickly clicked "I agree" to without reading?) expressly forbid access to anyone aside from the account holder. This is because of strong federal privacy laws.
Your PR will have to reach out to each company directly (call up Google, Apple, eBay, etc) and prove your death. Once proven, email and social media accounts will likely simply be shut down and deleted without giving the PR any access to the actual content of the accounts. For some things, that's okay. For other things, not so much (like a PayPal account with $30,000 left in it!). Accounts like these end up in virtual limbo, not to mention are sitting ducks for hackers.
To gain access to the data itself (such as cloud storage), your PR could easily be required to get a court order to obtain the information. Who knows how lengthy and costly of a process this can be.
Okay, you get it. It's a mess. So, what can you do about it? Plan!
Minnesota recently passed the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). This Act provides a bridge between the rights of your fiduciary (like a PR) to step into your shoes and the federal privacy laws. This law enables a fiduciary to do what they need to do without additional headache of getting court orders as described above.
Create and maintain an orderly list of usernames and the associated email addresses. Or utilize a company like EstateMap, which charge a minimal fee and securely store this information for you. You appoint someone to gain access to this account upon your death.
Ensure that your attorney drafts language into your Will (and Power of Attorney, Trust documents, etc) about how to deal with digital assets (e.g. expressly authorizing your PR to access, modify, control, archive, transfer, and delete digital assets).
Additionally, some companies (like Facebook) are providing an online tool for you to appoint a "Legacy contact" on your account which allows this person access to your account upon your death. You can get directions on how to set this up here: Facebook Help Center. Similarly, Google allows you to designate an "Inactive Account Manager" that gets activated after a certain number of months of no activity on your account.
Regardless of what you do to back up your passwords, be it on paper, on your computer, or on an app, just do SOMETHING! And most importantly, account for it in your estate plan. Specific language should be in every Will or Trust, stating you expressly authorize your Personal Representative (or Trustee or other Fiduciary) to access your digital assets for enumerated purposes. It is just another way to ease the burden on friends and family that have to put your affairs in order after death.
Please remember, this post provides educational information only and in no way constitutes legal advice.