Squaring Away Your Digital Estate

Squaring Away Your Digital Estate

Take digital inventory
For each, give instructions
Get the terms of service
Save the information
Get legal advice

When Chanel Reynolds was 39 and her husband, Jose Hernando, was 43, he was hit by a van while riding his bike.

It smashed his upper spine and caused an immediate traumatic cardiac arrest, but he made it to the hospital with a trace of a pulse. For a week, until doctors determined he would never regain consciousness, Reynolds, who most wanted to be with her husband, had to spend precious hours dealing with a host of problems starting with the fact that she didn't know the four-digit passcode to his phone.

"That meant I couldn't get a hold of his dad," she says. (She had some family numbers, but not all; his parents had separated when he was young and were not in contact.) For hours, she tried various passcodes, but the phone would lock her out for longer periods of time the more failed attempts she made. "Eventually, the doctors were telling me he could die any minute and that they hoped he would be stable enough to take into surgery and there was a 50/50 chance that he wouldn't make it off the table, so I had to do a Facebook update saying, 'Hey, everyone in the Hernando family -- someone give me a call.' "

"That is absolutely not the way you want to let somebody know that something has happened."

Reynolds was encountering something relatively new in this digital age -- the fact that when we go, we carry a lot of our most important possessions with us. In the past, when information was held on paper, our loved ones could more easily gain access to our bank accounts, health insurance policies, business assets, photos and more.

Jamie Hopkins, a professor at The American College of Financial Services, says, "Normally, you would say, 'I know my dad has a couple bank accounts. Where are they?' " And you show up to his house, but if he's paperless, there won't be mail coming from Bank of America or Wells Fargo or Wachovia, and the only place that mail is going is to his email. So if you don't have access to the email, you can't really take care of that person's finances."

Also, as more and more people are learning nowadays, we will all experience "digital death," leaving behind a "digital afterlife" or "digital legacy" in the form of our online identities and possessions, which will essentially outlive us in the cloud -- whether through our email accounts, Facebook and Twitter profiles, online photos and videos, blogs, eBay and Etsy storefronts and more. And for those we leave behind, if we don't prepare, they could lose these parts of us as well.

Reynolds says, "because I didn't have [passwords and access to accounts] ahead of time and because I realized it was going to be hard to get them, you end up having to make dozens of phone calls over and over and over again and basically talk to the 'I'm sorry for your loss' department just to get your bank account turned over to you, or access the things that were in your partner's name only." (She also didn't even know if their wills were updated or if they had life insurance, which prompted her to create a website called Get Your [Stuff] Together, which outlines all the documents one should have in place in an emergency.)

In the United States, the value of online assets is nearly $55,000 per internet user, according to online security company McAfee, and while Hopkins says that much of that value is probably in small businesses, he also says, "There's a lot of unclaimed life insurance out there because nobody even knows somebody had a policy. Those types of issues will be highlighted as more and more things go digital."

Evan Carroll, coauthor of Your Digital Afterlife and author at TheDigitalBeyond.com, a website that monitors related issues, says, "Ideally, we'd have systems and laws and protocols in place and your heirs could gain access to your digital materials and you wouldn't have to do anything special for that to happen. Unfortunately, both our social norms and our laws have not caught up with the digital lives that we're leading today."

A group called the Uniform Laws Commission created a Committee on Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets that is currently drafting recommendations for digital assets statutes that states can adapt or adopt. (Seven states already have adopted such statutes -- Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Virginia, Idaho, Nevada and Oklahoma.)

But until the laws do catch up, here what you can do to reduce the pain and suffering of our loved ones by preparing beforehand.

1. Take a digital inventory.

Yes, this sounds like a beast, but you should try to log all the digital accounts you have, though obviously certain ones are higher priority than others:

  • Your computers, smartphones and other devices including tablets, ebook readers, mp3 players, etc.
  • Email accounts
  • Financial institutions and policies, for checking and savings accounts; credit cards; retirement accounts; other investment accounts; student loans; mortgage lenders; life, health, disability, auto and renter's/homeowner's insurance; Paypal; etc.
  • Social media accounts, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, etc.
  • Online businesses that produce revenue, such as eBay, Etsy, Amazon Marketplace, a blog that pulls in advertising, etc.
  • Places where you upload photos, videos or other media, such as Flickr, Picasa, Instagram, Youtube, Vimeo, etc.
  • Sites or applications where you store store music, movies, ebooks such as iTunes or Amazon
  • Any site where you've registered your credit card information, such as online stores and services. This may seem extreme, but credit card fraud often involves people who have recently died, and those bills could end up going to spouses.

2. For each, give instructions for how loved ones should handle the account after you're gone.

Delineate which accounts should be deleted. For other accounts, note your username and password or passcode and designate someone to receive them. When deciding what to do with each account, consider these guidelines:

Email: It's best, if possible, to give access to your email account, says Carroll. "Email is the master key to other accounts. As long as your executor has access to your email account, chances are good that they can reset that password and obtain the appropriate access to other accounts."

If you're uncomfortable with the idea of others looking at your correspondence, "you could say, 'While I know you would need access for these reasons, I prefer if you don't go looking for this or that type of message,' '' says Carroll. (See below for important notes on the differences between Gmail's and Yahoo Mail's policies.)

Online businesses: "When it comes to online businesses -- eBay or Etsy or advertising on a blog you write -- the financial value of these assets is a real financial value to the estate, so you want to make sure that is handled the appropriate way through your will," says Carroll. With anything financial, he adds, executors will need to follow the appropriate policies of both the service and orders in your will.

Social media: "Sometimes it makes sense for a social media account to remain in place to serve as a memorial," says Carroll. "Facebook has a way to memorialize accounts. On Twitter, some families have chosen to keep Twitter accounts online so people can read them, though obviously there are no additional posts there. It would be strange and almost unwelcome if an account from someone who is deceased continues to post. A final notification would be appropriate, but beyond that, it becomes an unwelcome reminder of a potentially sad event." If you'd like the account to have a final statement, you can leave instructions as to what it should be.

3. Acquaint yourself with the terms of service of all your accounts, but especially your email accounts.

Yahoo's terms of service state that your account cannot be turned over to anyone else, and that, in fact, accounts of deceased users are subject to permanent deletion. This would affect everything ranging from email to Flickr photos. Though some people may prefer that policy, if those terms don't sit right with you, you could switch to email and the photo-sharing site Picasa by Google, which offers an Inactive Account Manager that allows you to dictate in advance how your possessions held by Google should be handled.

Reynolds also suggests having a digital power of attorney written into your power of attorney document that empowers someone to get your assets online. "It clearly states your intent that someone can go get your information for you," she says. "It doesn't always mean the companies will give it back to you -- there aren't federal digital laws yet -- but you can have more power over what happens to your Facebook account or your YouTube channel so it's more what your wishes are than what the company policy is."

4. Determine where to save this information.

The challenge with storage is that, if someone undesirable accessed this information before you died, it could wreak a lot of havoc in your life, so you need to find a place that's secure but that a loved one could also easily access in the event of your death or if you became incapacitated. "You can't put that [information] in a will because, one, wills become public once they go through probate," says Hopkins. "The other problem is that wills -- you have to keep updating them every time your passwords and usernames change."

He recommends putting everything into a document stored on an external encrypted hard drive. That also protects against the possibility that someone could either steal or be on your computer, going through your passwords.

Carroll adds that you could also put them on paper in a locked file drawer if you have a high level of trust in your family, and that many attorneys will also store information for you, though that might become a pain every time you want to update a password or add to the document. You could also turn to one of a number of services like LastPass or SecureSafe that have cropped up to assist people in this task. With LastPass, you would only need to share your master password, and with SecureSafe, it gives you a 64-character code that you can include in your estate documents so someone can inherit your account.

Hopkins adds that some services will allow you to have more control over who sees which accounts -- for instance, you could use the service to delete a certain account without any family members knowing you had it, and send one account to one person, but another account to a different loved one.

Ultimately, Carroll says, you should choose whatever method is best for your situation.

5. Get legal advice and tell your loved ones where the information is stored.

Because this does involve your estate, obtain legal advice to make sure you're in line with state laws or any other laws you may not be aware of. And unless you tell someone where this information is stored, some or all of your preparation could be for naught.

Finally, don't put this off -- and don't think you have to do it perfectly to do it at all. Even if you only have time for one small step, just do that.

"We suffer from this thing that researchers call benign neglect. It's the same thing with backing up our computers," says Carroll. "We know we need to do it, but we think, 'I'll get around to that another time.' With backing up your computer, oftentimes, it's not until someone loses significant data that they decide, 'I need to be diligent about backing up.' Unfortunately, with death we only have one chance. Take some action, because that's a million times better than taking no action."