How to Protect Your Digital Assets After Death
Most people are aware of the importance of estate planning, but often times digital assets are overlooked when planning for seniors. After all, how many seniors have online bank accounts or are active on social media?
It turns out that many seniors are more active online than most people realize – and that number will grow exponentially as baby boomers age – which is why it’s integral to discuss digital assets with your senior loved ones now.
What Are Digital Assets?
Digital assets can be grouped into four main areas:
- Communication: This not only includes digital communication such as emails and text messages but also Skype and other types of chat and messaging services.
- Financial: This includes airline miles, bank accounts, credit card accounts, online shopping accounts and online payment accounts such as PayPal.
- Media: Media items include photos and videos stored in the cloud, written materials such as online journals or professional articles written for blogs and other publications. E-books and music are included in this category but most likely cannot be preserved.
- Social Media: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Twitter.
Why Should I Care About These Digital Assets?
Social media accounts can be easily misused by scammers, and if a scammer takes over a Facebook account they can spread malware to those on the deceased’s friend list, use the account for spam advertising or set up “like farming” schemes.
Family members and friends left behind may find comfort in re-reading conversations, looking at social media posts and browsing through photos that have been posted on Instagram or other social media. For instance, when my friend died, I copied all of the emails, Messenger chat conversations, Facebook photos and text messages, so that even years later, I can go back and laugh at inside jokes and photos of us on our travels.
Those images and words are not only part of her personal legacy but part of mine also.
Ways to Protect Digital Assets After Death
Here are a few tips on how to discuss the four main types of digital assets with your senior loved one:
How to Handle Digital Communication After Death
- Apple account: You will need the death certificate, deceased person’s email and their password. The account needs to be canceled by contacting Apple Support directly.
- Chat programs such as Snapchat: You will need the password for Snapchat. If the person was using Facebook Messenger that will cancel with the Facebook account deactivation or memorialization.
- Email: Most of the major email providers will require the deceased’s user ID, a copy of the death certificate and sometimes proof of relationship or document appointing you as representative of the deceased.
- Microsoft account: You will need the account password.
- Text messages: There are only a few ways to save text messages and both must be done before deactivating the cellular account. You can forward or screenshot all of the messages which can be unwieldy and time-consuming or there is software which will download them from iTunes or other phone software.
How to Handle Financial Accounts After Death
Most online financial accounts will need to be handled in person or over the phone; but the important thing is for family and friends to know that they exist, especially if statements are not received through the mail.
- Airline miles: Claiming airline miles from a deceased relative depends on the specific airline policy and airlines may charge a fee to transfer the miles. Contact the specific airline or look on their website for policy and procedures to claim miles.
- Bank accounts: The bank will require the death certificate and will provide you will any forms or documents needed depending on whether you are a beneficiary, power of attorney or trustee. This varies depending on the financial institution so you will need to contact the bank directly.
- Credit cards: Notify the card companies to find out the balance, recurring charges and close the account. You will want to follow up with a written letter including a copy of the death certificate, your contact information and credit card number. Individual companies may require additional information.
- Grocery or pet food delivery: Contact the company directly.
- HSA accounts: Disposition of HSA accounts to beneficiaries depends on the relationship of your beneficiary. If it is your spouse they can begin to use the funds as their own HSA in most cases. HSA law and how it affects taxes can be complicated so it is recommended that you contact an elder law attorney in your state.
- Medication delivery: Contact the deceased’s doctor or pharmacy.
- PayPal: Fax the following documents to PayPal – A letter from the executor which identifies the account by the account holders email address, a copy of the death certificate, a government issued ID for the executor and a copy of the will which identifies you as the executor of the estate.
- Retirement accounts: Beneficiaries to the retirement account will need to contact the financial institution as they may vary between companies.
How to Handle Digital Media Accounts After Death
- Amazon account: Contact Amazon through their customer service number to deactivate the account and cancel any subscriptions.
- Audio, e-books and music: E-books and music purchased through Amazon, iTunes and other companies are not generally transferable after death. When you pay the fee or purchase price for the digital e-book or music file you are actually licensing the media, not actually owning the content of the file.
- Hulu: Call customer service.
- Netflix: You will need the account password but this can be canceled online.
- Photos and videos: For most other cloud storage companies you will need the user’s password.
- Written material such as blog articles or online journal entries: For articles written by the deceased that are on a public site, you can just search for the article title or browse through the website or search by author to find the material. For closing a LiveJournal account you will need the account password.
How to Handle Social Media Accounts After Death
- Facebook: Facebook allows an active account to be turned into a memorial account by an immediate family member with proof of death. When a Facebook account is turned into a memorial account, friends can post to the deceased’s page and tag them in photos. You can also deactivate a deceased person’s account instead of memorializing it.
- Google: This would include Google +, Google ID and Gmail. I’d save this account for deactivation last if the deceased used a Gmail address as the email address is required for many other social media deactivations. Google requires a death certificate and a recent email from the deceased’s account to be forwarded to them. Google will also ask for the name and email address of the relative/legal representative requesting the account closure. Google does allow you to set up a feature ahead of your death that will take action after a certain period of activity.
- Instagram: Instagram also allows for either memorialization or deactivation of a deceased user’s account. Instagram requires proof of relationship or authority that you are a lawful representative of the deceased person as well as the deceased person’s death certificate.
- LinkedIn: LinkedIn has several requirements for deactivation including the deceased’s name, your relationship to them, the name of the company the deceased last worked for, a link to the deceased’s profile, proof of death and their current email address.
- Pinterest: Deactivation requires a death certificate, link to their Pinterest page and proof of your relationship to the person.
- Twitter: Requires a death certificate and user ID of deceased as well as your user ID for deactivation. Memorial accounts are not an option.
Which Digital Assets to Share While End-of-Life Planning
While it is important to have power of attorney documents and a well thought out will, there is some information that should be shared even before death or incapacitation. A trusted family member or friend should know how to access information on your phone, especially your address book and medical information if it is stored on the phone.
If you use a smartphone make sure that someone has not only the code to get into the phone but the password for the phone operating system – i.e. your iTunes password as well as the 4 digit access code for screen lock. Either your power of attorney or another trusted person should have a list of your accounts with passwords or, better yet, use a password manager and provide that person with the master password or location of said password.
Information to Include in a Power of Attorney or Will
- List of all account numbers, banks and institutions that are managed online.
- List of all credit card accounts managed online including the name of the card issuer and card number.
- List of cloud photo storage software/website and password.
- List of email, internet and messaging programs used and their passwords.
- List of monthly subscriptions and their passwords, i.e. Amazon Prime, Netflix, etc.
- List of social media accounts and passwords.
- Master password for your password saver software or list of current passwords.
- Passwords for audiobook software if separate from phone operating system or another online account such as Amazon.
- Passwords for music software such as Amazon Music, iTunes or Spotify.
- Phone unlock code and operating system password.
- URLs of online journals or individual blog articles.
As our population ages and more of our lives involve our online presence, digital assets will continue to be an important issue for everyone. Digital estate planning is in its infancy and laws and legal guidelines are just being set. Only a handful of states have laws regarding estate planning and most of the regulations around it are being set by the user agreements of the companies where your digital information is stored.
We highly recommend contacting an attorney in your state who has experience in both estate planning and digital asset protection.
Have you or a senior loved one already taken measures to protect your digital assets? We’d like to hear more about your experience in the comments below.
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