When a person thinks about what to do with their worldly possessions after they die, they consider their house, business, vehicles, investments, corporate stocks, and Grandmother’s wedding ring. All of those items are important and tangible, so they never seem to be forgotten when making an estate plan. Yet many of us neglect to handle something that can be just as valuable: our online information.
Most internet users have numerous online passwords to remember. Bank accounts, email accounts, trading accounts, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, iTunes, cell phone and utility accounts are just a few. Many bills and receipts are not even sent via regular mail anymore but are delivered by email. If you have a Will, you have most likely ensured that your family knows where it is located and provided them with any important information they need if you pass away. Would they know how to manage your online assets?
A lone utility bill may not be much of an issue, but what happens if you run a small business and have a website, Facebook page, or blog and were not around to maintain it? Your business website may be set up to take orders online and if you are the only one running it, those orders are not going to be filled. Or you may be selling items on eBay and the purchasers will never receive a response.
There are a host of other issues, such as preserving intellectual property, maintaining privacy, and protecting a deceased’s account from inappropriate postings. Valuable assets that belong to your estate may be lost. Customer contacts, music, photographs and writings are a few examples. If family or business associates are not aware of where items are stored, or are aware but do not have access to these sites, then those assets may be lost in an online void.
Some social networking sites and email accounts have policies in place for when a user dies, but many do not. If you want to be certain that your online persona and property are being handled as you wish, then you have a few options.
A few businesses exist to store all of your online account information and passwords. These are distributed, upon your death, to the people you designate. Some have raised issues with having all of this data stored in one place, and the potential for theft by malicious cracking. You also want to confirm that the company is solid enough to survive into the far future.
You can make a list of all of your accounts with login and password information and give it to a friend or relative you trust. Some may not want certain people viewing private email accounts, so you could give different people different parts of the account information. You may not want to include banking information or accounts, because someone you trust today may not be someone you trust 10 years from now. That being said, remember to change your login information when and if your relationship begins to break down. Be sure to keep track of what information you have given to what people, in case you need to change things.
Third parties are also a potential storage solution. Your law firm may offer a service to store information for you, following your instructions for release after you die. Trust companies that handle personal financial affairs may also be an option.
If the information is being held by an individual, it should be in electronic form, encrypted with a password known only to them. Without this, if that person dies before you, you would no longer be certain of who has access to and control of your information.
Ensure that your digital life is part of not only your estate planning but also an element of the succession planning of your business. Talk to your family and business partners so that they are aware of what needs to occur upon your death. By proper planning you can rest easy knowing that you have not loaded additional problems onto your loved ones.