Will You Live Forever On The Internet?
A new app called “If I die” launched recently. According to the site’s online video, “Last words. We all hope we’ll get a chance to say some. But not knowing when or where we’re going to die makes it a bit tricky. Thankfully with If I die it’s a whole lot easier. ‘If I die’ is a unique Facebook app that allows you to leave a message that will only be published after your die. So click, install the app on Facebook, leave your message, and choose trustees that will be in charge of reporting your death. Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘I don’t remember scheduling an appointment with death any time soon,’ and you’re right. But so is death. Right around the corner. So don’t wait until it’s too late. Leave your message today. It can be a bid farewell, a favorite joke, a long kept secret, an old score you wanted to settle or even some valuable advice.” (It’s actually an amusing video, so watch it if you have a minute.)
So, you get the new app, leave your last words, and you’ve taken care of Facebook after your death. But what about all of your other online activities, such as your company web page, online accounts, eBay, Twitter, LinkedIn, PayPal and on and on and on? What happens to all of that if you die?
Just like your other assets, your online assets are property, so ownership will pass as you provide in your will or trust agreement. Or, if you do not have a will or trust agreement they will pass, as determined by the State of Illinois – generally to your spouse and children, then parents and siblings, etc. The difference is how your beneficiaries will know about your online property and know how to access it.
I am often asked by beneficiaries and executors how to find all of a person’s assets after they are gone. I have advised them to review the deceased’s tax returns and to gather the deceased’s mail. A tax return will show a person’s sources of income, and banks, brokerages, etc. have traditionally mailed monthly or quarterly statements. But that is becoming less and less true. Many people receive or access all of their accounts online. The same is true for bills. Many people no longer receive bills in the mail, so how is the executor to know what the bills are and where to pay them?
The first step is to make a list of all your online accounts of any kind – email accounts, social media, web pages, financial accounts, credit cards, etc., together with password to each account. Obviously, the list must be kept in a secure location, but it also has to be a location that your executor can find. It does no good to keep the list on your computer where no one can find it, or, if they can find it, they can’t access it because it’s password protected. You can keep the list with your will, or you can give it to your attorney to keep in her file. Of course, the list will need to be updated, but at least it will be a place to start.
If you don’t have anyone you trust to handle your digital afterlife, there are companies you can pay to handle it for you. One such company is Legacy Locker. Their website notes that, “Passwords and usernames are the worst part of digital living. They’re even worse when it comes to digital death. All those multiple accounts get locked in password purgatory — and sometimes worse. They can permanently shut out family and friends from crucial assets and communications after someone dies.” Legacy Locker will serve somewhat as a will for your digital assets. In reality, though, all it does is distribute information after your death such as account information and passwords. Actual disposition of ownership of your assets must be done by a valid will or trust agreement to be enforceable.
Even though legal ownership must be transferred by proper documents, many sites have policies for handling the death of an account holder. Many popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, will close an account with proof of death, such as a death certificate. Even though they may close the account, they may not give you access to the account without legal authority.
If a loved one has died, you may want to close come of accounts relatively quickly to avoid identity theft or monitor them closely for malicious postings. Unfortunately, there are people who will use business owner’s death to post negative and dishonest information for their own advantage. In addition to harming the business, such postings are very hurtful to the family and friends of the deceased.
Bottom line: when planning your estate, don’t forget your online estate, and be sure to write down all of your accounts and passwords to protect the ones you love.
by Sarah Delano Pavlik