Do You Have a Digital Estate Plan?

Category: Reference

What will happen to your email, Facebook, iTunes and Amazon accounts if you die? It’s an uncomfortable question, but leaving it unanswered can be vastly more distressing and costly for your loved ones who survive you. Here are some tips on setting up a digital estate plan...

You Can't Take Them With You...

Recently, there was a rumor that actor Bruce Willis was planning to sue Apple for the right to leave his iTunes music collection to his children. There was also a story about Steve Jobs being reincarnated in a parallel world. The Willis rumor was debunked, and I'm pretty sure that Steve won't be checking his email any time soon.

Sooner or later, we'll all kick the bucket, buy the farm, or shed the mortal coil. But when you go, what will happen to your online accounts? You may or may not be content to just leave your Gmail or Facebook account dormant. You may have photos or documents in cloud storage. What if you have money in your Paypal account? And will your surviving relatives have the keys to your online banking or investment portfolio?
Digital Estate Planning

Also keep in mind that email and social network accounts can get hacked. Families and friends have been traumatized by spam sent from the accounts of the deceased. It can be difficult for survivors to get online accounts shut down after someone dies. Sometimes, it requires an expensive lawsuit or other court action.

Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and some other major online services have procedures for handling the accounts of deceased members. In most cases, they require faxed copies of a death certificate, the photo ID of the requestor, and a notarized statement of authority. But Amazon, Grooveshark, Foursquare, and many others don’t publish any information about dealing with deceased members’ accounts. The DeceasedAccount website offers a handy guide to the deceased-member policies of many online services.

The simplest solution is to write down all of your accounts and their login credentials, then give that list to someone you trust. Of course, you’ll have to remember to constantly update that document when you change passwords or create new accounts. But what if you don’t trust anyone with all of your digital keys, at least while you’re still alive?

Digital Estate Planning Tools lets you send emails after you die. An email to your executor, for instance, might contain a list of accounts and passwords or a full-blown digital will and testament. The service sends a check-in email to you every so often; you confirm that you’re still alive by clicking on a reply link. If you don’t reply within 60 days, you are presumed to be dead and your stored emails are sent. The free version supports up to two recipients. For a one-time fee of $20, you get up to 100 recipients and the ability to customize the check-in intervals and reply deadline. adds cloud storage to the posthumous email solution. You can upload documents and other files that will be sent to recipients upon your presumed death. Each file gets assigned to a beneficiary, so you can leave different things to different people. The free version supports storage of up to 50 account passwords, while paid versions provide more storage space and security such as two-factor authentication that beneficiaries must provide to access their bequests.

The Digital Beyond is a news and information site devoted to digital estate planning. It offers a directory of services similar to those mentioned above; links to news articles on the subject; and a book called, “Your Digital Afterlife” that can help you consider what your digital legacy should be and set it up according to your final wishes.

What do you want done with your email after you die? Many people want a relative to login and send a message to all contacts with their news of their passing.

Should your Facebook page be closed or converted into a “memorial page”? How much money do you keep in Paypal, and who should get it when you die? How about your digital photos stored on Flickr? Do you have a blog or website that may need to be closed down? These and many other questions are worth answering before you go.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Do You Have a Digital Estate Plan?"

Posted by:

05 Sep 2012

No, I don't have a digital estate never crossed my mind...I have made arrangements for everything else...I do have a book that I keep with all my websites that need a user name and password and do try to keep it updated when I change kids kind of laugh at my little book with names and passwords, but once you get older like me, you tend to forget...this book has helped me a lot and goes with me wherever I visit, too...

Posted by:

Lee McIntyre
05 Sep 2012

This isn't something we think about often, so I am glad you've researched this information, Bob.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I received an ad for Nolo Press' "Willmaker" program (which allows laypersons to create simple wills). According to the ad, the program has a new section called "'Passwords and Online Accounts' section [which] helps you protect your digital legacy."

I didn't purchase the program, but it got me thinking that I ought to make some provision. Then, Whammo! Today, your article on the topic. Thanks!

Posted by:

D Williams
05 Sep 2012

This is such an important topic! I loved having my friend's Facebook page to post to after he was killed in an accident at age 24. But after awhile, I really wondered whether it was healthy for his parents to have to keep seeing the conversation. They changed it to a remembrance page, and I think that really *is* good for them. As for me, really glad to have the nudge as well as possible sources. I've certainly taken care of preparing a will -- but it did not have these considerations, and it needs to. Thanks!

Posted by:

05 Sep 2012

This article is GREAT! Even at 65 years I had not thought of this. Like many others, my life is deeply rooted in the internet. I plan to take advantage of your information. Thanks so much for this article.

North Carolina

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
05 Sep 2012

I have about 200 online accounts, each with their own password. The passwords and URLs are constantly changing. So using password management software like RoboForm ( makes a digital estate plan simple. The will just needs to contain the master password to get into RoboForm and your designated survivors will have all the up-to-the-minute information they need to get to every important account you have online. The will can detail what you want done with each account.

Posted by:

H. van Pelt
05 Sep 2012

Thank you Bob. An excellent article. Good for you to make this informatiuon available for your readers. Keep up the good work.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2012

Don't even get me started on Yahoo, PayPal, and Hotmail. My son was killed in a horrible auto accident. Not only did I have to deal with that, I could not get access to his accounts to let his friends know what happened. My heart aches for his friends who have no idea what happened to him. I sent ALL of the information that they requested along with copies of the death certificate and court order appointing me as administrator. They told me they would review the information, but because I could not answer a couple of the security questions nor tell them the last time the account was accessed, they would not release anything. Hotmail said they would send me a CD with the accounts files, but I never received that because the information was incomplete. One man at PayPal finally told me that there was a zero balance on the account. My attorney even sent letters and we were either ignored or told that it was not possible to give that information. I will NEVER do business with any of those companies. Don't even get me started on the problems of having a domain released to the next-of-kin.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2012

I forgot to mention that AOL and Gmail were both wonderful. I was able to access but his email and his AIM account on AOL and Gmail sent me a new password after they received the information they requested.

Posted by:

Norman Rosen
06 Sep 2012

Oh Lord, one more thing to worry about! An excellent summary of what to do!

Posted by:

Susan Harper
06 Sep 2012

I am registed with Deathswitch. They also will send a 'worry' email to you that you must respond to. I tested this with another email account and it worked fine. I have mine set up to check once a year at this point.

Posted by:

06 Sep 2012

Hi Bob,
Quite interesting question, indeed! Thank you for addressing it.
The Digital Estate Planning Tools you mention are very interesting, but what about safety? If I list all my passwords in a mail to be sent to my heirs, how can I be sure it won't be hacked -even before my death- and all my accesses compromised?
The cure might be worse than the disease...

Posted by:

06 Sep 2012

Lastpass has a system for onetime use passwords.
If you use lastpass then your account and password list is up to date. A onetime password included with a will allows this to be handled.

Posted by:

michael egerton
06 Sep 2012

I have in my possession at all times usb sticks with my income and expenses on a spreadsheet program which includes all my login passwords; another copy is on the laptop at home but that could be destroyed by fire and that's why I carry usb sticks.

Posted by:

Glenda Oakley
06 Sep 2012

I actually have thought about this, but, that's about it! I think it a good idea, from Stuart, with his roboform idea.Thanks Bob, for bringing this to our attention. Like every issue I read from you, I ALWAYS learn something.Amazing stuff I might add.

Posted by:

The other Al
07 Sep 2012

This got me thinking, is there an online service that one can access daily such that if one dies, or has a medical malfunction, someone will be notified? Since I live alone now, this is a concern. One of those push-button things might not work if something serious happened.

Posted by:

AJ Folkart
08 Sep 2012

Publishing this is a great public service. I'm sending it to friends. It's definitely something we should take care of. A death leaves enough chaos in its wake, if we can smooth some of that, we should,.

Thank you.

Posted by:

13 Sep 2012

This is something I never thought about. Everyone should be made aware of this. Thanks Bob. Central Virginia

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Do You Have a Digital Estate Plan? (Posted: 5 Sep 2012)
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