It used to be that when someone died, their executor would follow a standard roadmap to settle their estate: clean out the house, go through the file cabinets, and file a tax return at the end of the year. Now this wasn’t exactly easy—handling the administration after a loved one’s death can be emotionally and logistically brutal—but at least everything you were dealing with was tangible. Nowadays we live our lives at least partly online, and that can mean a big headache for our families when we die: How do you sort through the deceased digital accounts and possessions when you don’t even know what they are?
“Twenty years ago, all an executor needed to do was collect the mail for three months and they’d have everything they need,” says Alison Besunder, a trusts and estates attorney in New York City. “As we move into a paperless, digital society everyone keeps their critical information in their heads.”
How to inventory your digital life—your online bank accounts, your social media, your email—has only recently become standard practice in estate planning. In the binder she gives to clients to help them get organized, Besunder has incorporated questions to get people started on simply identifying the components of their online lives. After all, it’s easy to note in your will that your niece gets the antique clock, but you might totally forget about your Flickr account or ancient LiveJournal.
If you haven’t already, you must make a will and designate a fiduciary. You should also consider what happens if you are incapacitated or temporarily disabled, and appoint someone as agent under a power of attorney. “The power of attorney should include digital-assets provisions designating someone to access your online accounts,” says Besunder. The appointed fiduciary (either the executor when you die or a power of attorney when you’re incapacitated) will handle your affairs; having a will and a power of attorney in place will save your family a huge headache after you’re gone.
To get started, Besunder recommends breaking down the digital estate-planning into bite-sized chunks, and it helps to sort the tasks into categories. There are four major components to your digital life:
Each one requires a different strategy to ensure that nothing gets lost or forgotten.
You must make sure that your executor can access your computer, your phone, and your accounts. Now, you could just leave a piece of paper on your desk with all your passwords on it, but that presents some obvious problems—passwords tend to change pretty quickly, so you’d have to be diligent about keeping the list updated, and post-its are not really that secure if someone untrustworthy should happen to have access to your desk (absolutely don’t do this for an office computer). At least make sure someone knows, or has a way of finding out, the code to get into your primary computer and your phone.
One solution is a password manager , which stores your passwords for you; it allows you to designate an emergency contact who can access your “vault” if you die or are incapacitated. Besunder does nod to the fact that anything online is vulnerable to data breaches, so it’s up to you whether you think a document, whether left in plain sight, stored in a file drawer, or stored in an encrypted file, is a better plan than the digital services. (Editor’s note: Lifehacker recommends using a password manager and changing your master password every few months.)
NB: Besunder tells me that the Apple ID is the absolute hardest to get access to after someone’s died (this doesn’t surprise me, as I regularly have trouble getting into my own Apple account). So make sure that that one, at least, is stored somewhere or otherwise accessible to your executor.
It’s very green of you to do away with your paper bank statements, but your executor still needs a way to know what your accounts are and how to access them. “At a minimum,” says Besunder, “Hand-write down where you bank, and what the account numbers are, so the fiduciary can get access.” You should do this as well for life insurance policies, stocks, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, and credit cards. While you’re at it, go through your bank and credit-card statements and make a list of your recurring payments, like utilities, tuition, loans, even your Netflix account and newspaper subscriptions. All of this will make closing out those accounts easier for your executor.
The password to your email accounts should be in your password file. For Gmail, you can set up an “inactive account manager”—a dead man’s switch—so that if you don’t log in your account for a certain period of time, your designee will be notified. It offers you the option of including a personal message, which I declined—if I’m contacting my husband from beyond the grave, it’s going to be via good old-fashioned haunting.
Other email providers vary: Yahoo will not turn over your account no matter what you do; Microsoft will send a data DVD of all the contents to your executor; AOL will transfer ownership to another username listed on the account. You will have to wade through the terms of service for your particular provider, but here’s a good overview .
For your social media, what you do might depend on how valuable your online platform is. If you have 7 millions followers on Instagram—something that potentially could be monetized—you’ll want to leave a letter of direction about how you want to handle that account.
Facebook and Instagram both allow accounts to be memorialized; Facebook also allows you to designate a legacy contact to manage your memorialized page. Twitter will let your executor or family member deactivate your account, but that’s about it. Again, check out the terms of service for each provider.
If you have significant intellectual property—e.g., you’re a successful novelist and there’s an unfinished manuscript on your hard drive—you should designate a personal representative to handle those parts of your legacy. (Samuel Beckett, for example, did not want women performing in Waiting for Godot, and his estate has tried to enforce that.)
If you have ordinary intellectual property, like photographs or original music stored on hard drives or online services, you should still provide instructions for who owns those in your letter of direction. Your digital collections, like the books and music you buy from iTunes, are trickier—when you click “buy,” you’re not really buying that song, you’re licensing it, and it seems that Apple is not going to let you will your purchases in the same way you could if they were CDs or LPs. And think about any other virtual assets you might have: digital currencies, games, or domain names, for example.
You would be doing your executor a favor if you cull, organize, and label these things now—I have a bunch of old hard drives in the closet, and I’m sure they all have a million precious photographs on them, so I have a goal of sorting through them and at least labeling them with what they contain. As a second line of defense, I might put them all on Dropbox, so I can share them with other family members who can access them in the event of my death.
Finally, consider your online portfolio , blog, or any other digital space that houses your work. I have hundreds of articles and essays online, and if I were to cork off tomorrow, my family would have no idea where to find them or how to keep them for posterity. I’d like my kids to be able to keep, say, the 20-50 essays that I think they would find meaningful, so I’ll likely save them to an online portfolio, in a dedicated folder as PDFs, or even—I know this is crazy—print them out. Maybe even all three.
Feeling overwhelmed? This is exactly what a trusts and estate attorney is for, but you need to find someone who’s up on digital estate planning. The attorney should help you inventory your assets, including your digital assets, and help you leave instructions on how to access them and how to distribute them.
Besunder offers a good series of questions to ask of prospective attorneys: “Find someone you’re comfortable with and who you feel who will answer your questions. People tend to focus on cost, but the most important thing is getting it right and making sure you understand it.” In the initial meeting (or over email), be sure to ask these questions:
If you want more info on how to sort through everything, check out Besunder’s thoughts on exactly this topic. The site The Digital Beyond is also helpful, including this post on the writer’s experience with LastPass. For my own estate planning, I’m sorting through this bit by bit, beginning with my passwords and bank accounts. Which I’m writing on a durable, and tangible, piece of paper.