What Happens to Your Digital Assets When You Die?

Category: Reference

Benjamin Franklin famously said that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Sooner or later, we'll all kick the bucket, cash in our chips, or shed the mortal coil. Sure, you may have a will, but what happens to your digital assets – your data and online accounts? That's where digital estate planning comes into play. Think of it as having a backup plan to give those left behind, so they can access your data. Here’s what you need to know, and one VERY important thing you should add to your will. Read on...

What is Digital Estate Planning?

A few years back, there was a story about Steve Jobs being reincarnated in a parallel world. But I'm pretty sure that Steve won't be checking his email any time soon. You may not have thought about what happens to your data when you die, but one thing is sure -- you can't take it with you.

You may not be content to just let your Gmail or Facebook account go dormant after you pass on. You may have photos or documents in cloud storage. What if you have money in your Paypal account, or a cryptocurrency wallet? Will your surviving relatives have the password to your computer, and the keys to your online banking, ecommerce, subscriptions, or other accounts?

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. Unless, of course, you use a password manager that keeps all your passwords for you. Then all you need to provide your attorney or next-of-kin is the master password to unlock the password manager. (See my article Here’s the End of Weak Passwords for links to some of the best password managers.)

But what if you don’t trust anyone with all of your digital keys, at least while you’re still alive?

Digital Estate Planning

A few years ago, I found less than a handful of websites offering digital estate planning services. Now there are dozens of players; many are offered by established estate planning and legal firms. Much like Turbotax and other tax preparation software, digital estate planning sites walk you step-by-step through the complex process, holding your hand along the way.

Essentially, all of these services help you make decisions and document them; give you secure cloud storage in which to keep your documents; and provide a mechanism for empowering the people you designate to access the documents and other information they need to carry out your wishes.

Everplans was co-founded by Abby Schneiderman, who experienced firsthand the frustrations of wrestling with her deceased brother’s digital legacy when he died in a car accident in 2012. Everplans helps people document their wishes about everything from advanced medical care directives to who gets the pets and grandma’s apple pie recipe. Everplans can hold your family photos and your obituary. You can provide information that you want family and friends to learn after you die, and specify who gets what information. Everplans charges $75 per year that your account and repository are active.

Will Your Data Outlive You?

You might live to 100, but a more immediate concern might be the longevity of your data. My article [SHOCKER] CD and DVD Discs May Fail Sooner Than You Think goes into detail on how long you can expect CD and DVD disks to remain readable, and one solution that promises to provide archival storage for the (very) long term.

GoodTrust offers assistance with wills, trusts, power of attorney and healthcare directives, valid in all 50 states, and a Smart Digital Vault to help you organize your digital life and legacy. The digital vault serves as a backup your financial accounts, social media, and other online accounts. You can store and share passcodes for all your devices, manage who can access your documents in an emergency, and specity a trusted contact to carry out your final wishes. GoodTrust charges a $149 one-time fee.

FinalSecurity offers a free online will builder, and an info vault where you can store your digital information, such as usernames and passwords, photos, and important documents such as a will, or a collection of information your beneficiaries will need. Optionally, you can have your phone or computer erased when you’re gone, and social media accounts deleted. Accounts range from Free (100MB Vault Storage) to Plus ($24/year, 10GB Vault Storage, 4 Social/Cloud Accounts) to Life ($174.99 one-time fee, 10GB Vault Storage, 4 Social/Cloud Accounts, 2 Devices).

There's also Dead Man’s Switch which 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. (If you’re on a three-month tour of far-flung places with no Internet access, you can have your notifications delayed accordingly.) The free version supports up to two recipients. For a one-time fee of $50, you get up to 100 recipients and the ability to customize the check-in intervals and reply deadline.

For do-it-yourselfers, Google offers a free digital estate planning service dubbed Inactive Account Manager. It’s intended to deal with your Google assets (Gmail, Drive, Photos, etc.) but you can also leave instructions about anything else in an email that will be sent to your trusted contact(s) if you don’t log into your Google account for a specified period of time (3, 6, 12 or 18 months).

Facebook offers Memorialized Accounts which allows the account of a deceased user to continue to be viewed. A designated “Legacy Contact” can write a pinned post for the memorialized profile, respond to new friend requests, and update the profile picture.

Final Wishes for Your Data

Generally, survivors are left to deal with the corporate policies of multiple online services when someone dies. The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA)is a law that allows the Executor of an estate to access to a decedent's online accounts after death. The implementation of RUFADAA varies from state to state, but the most important takeaway is that you should add specific language to your will that specifies what access your executor sshould have to your digital assets.

This article from the American Bar Association, Estate Planning And Administration In The Information Age is a detailed and technical legal overview of RUFADAA, but you can skip all that and see Appendix A, which contains language that you can copy, adapt, and add to your will.

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 news of their passing. Should your Facebook page be closed or converted into a “memorial page”? How about your digital photos stored on Flickr? Do you have a blog, website or online business that may need to be closed down? Any paid online services you need to cancel? A cryptocurrency wallet? These and many other questions are worth answering before you go. Have you made a digital estate plan?

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Most recent comments on "What Happens to Your Digital Assets When You Die?"

Posted by:

Tom Kamrath
04 Mar 2024

Thanks for this article. I find it useful and timely.

Posted by:

Brian B
04 Mar 2024

Bob, two points I feel bound to make.
1. Many sites still persist in setting limits on required passwords like prohibited characters, and password length.
2. How does Password Autofill handle 2FA where after logging in, a code is sent to your registered mobile? So, in order for a relative to access your bank account say, they would need not only the password to unlock the phone, but also have possession of it. Accessing Using the PC or Mac to access the same account, would need that password as well.
My preference re passwords is to store them in a hidden folder on my PC, encrypted and password protected. A bit of a chore to use, but far better than the alternative.

Posted by:

Christopher Rawlins
04 Mar 2024

This article assumes you have somebody to whom you would like to leave something. What if you have no-one? No relatives or friends, your the last of your family to die? What happens to all your online emails and photos then?

Posted by:

Lin Wallberg
04 Mar 2024

Estate Planning And Administration In The Information Age lists Appendix A on page 75, but contains only 28 pages.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Scroll down to the bottom, you'll see Appendix A and B.

Posted by:

04 Mar 2024

I can help you with the problem of no one to give your bank account and cryptocurrency to.

Posted by:

05 Mar 2024

Hill, I'd like help.
Please elaborate.

Posted by:

Gary R Bell
05 Mar 2024

Thanks for this great resource:)

Posted by:

Norman Rosen
06 Mar 2024

One of the most helpful articles you have ever published.

Posted by:

27 May 2024

Remember to check any stand-alone camera's memory card.

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