You Can't Take it With You (Digital Estate Planning)

Category: Reference

Everyone knows the old cliche about death and taxes. 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 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 access to your data. Here’s what you need to know...

What is Digital Estate Planning

A few years back, 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.

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? And will your surviving relatives have the keys to your online banking or investment portfolio?

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?

Back in 2012, I found less than a handful of websites offering digital estate planning services. Now, there are dozens of new players; at least, they’re new to the Web - 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.

Digital Estate Planning

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 Will Your Files and Photos Last 1000 Years? 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.

FinalRoadmap gives special emphasis to end-of-life care instructions. Its planning protocol gets into details that are often omitted from paper-based advanced care directives and wills, right down to what specific medical interventions you want or don’t want, and even who will be permitted in your presence while you’re dying. Yes, the questions are uncomfortable, but it’s better for you to answer them now than to leave family agonizing over what you would want them to do. FinalRoadMap charges a one-time fee of $249.

Similar services include The Digital Beyond,, and Shop around for one that offers the services most important to you, and whose approach makes the most sense.

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 (email, Drive, Photos, Google+ page, 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.

There's also Deadmans 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. 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.

Final Wishes for Your Data

Generally, survivors are left to deal with the corporate policies of multiple online services when someone dies. There is no federal law empowering executors or designated representatives to access a decedent’s digital assets. Many states have enacted such laws, and their provisions vary widely.

The Uniform Law Commission, which drafts model legislation that States generally adopt as-is for the sake of uniformity (e. g., the Uniform Commercial Code), approved the Uniform Fiduciary Act in 2014. One of its main provisions is that a fiduciary who has access to a tangible asset will have access to digital assets of a similar type. So if your executor is given control of your business, the online portions of that business and online records associated with the business would be available to the executor, too.

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 about your digital photos stored on Flickr? Do you have a blog or website that may need to be closed down? Any paid online services you need to cancel? 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 "You Can't Take it With You (Digital Estate Planning)"

Posted by:

08 Jul 2019

Bob, I've decided to take it "ALL" with me. Including my hard earned money. I'm going to convert it to a digital currency and not tell anyone the account # or key, or anything. I'll let my heirs spend their money and time trying to crack that code. All the while it will continue to accumulate interest to infinity and beyond.

And the ultimate kicker is for the IRS. They wont be able to get their claws on it either!

After I"m thawed out, the relatives will be gone and the IRS will have put on ice all penalties because they cant collect on it.

Posted by:

08 Jul 2019

I plan on leaving the LastPass password with my will. That should allow access to all important accounts as long as LastPass exists.

Posted by:

09 Jul 2019

There are several copies of my KeePass database around, including one on a USB-stick on my key-ring.
A small text file allows my family to piece together my password from various bits of information — but they'll have to consult, nobody has all the information necessary — and that will give them access to all my accounts.
Thereafter, they can work out what, if anything, they want — I'll be too far gone to care!

Posted by:

09 Jul 2019

"And will your surviving relatives have the keys to your online banking or investment portfolio?"
I would suggest that access to a bank account by any third-party, including a wife/husband/legal partner, would be considered a criminal offence - unless the accounts are held jointly, when one would expect that they each have access anyway.
A single person bank account would be subject to probate before it could be accessed, even for a wife/husband/legal partner.

Posted by:

Ralph C
10 Jul 2019

We use a password protected Excel file to house all of our login info like usernames and passwords. Our heirs have the password to get into the file when we pass.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2019

Good point Stewart, and I also believe you are correct.

As soon as a bank knows a person has died the accounts AND any secure box they rent in the bank vault are locked with no access until after probate ... although I believe a will can be retrieved from the box, but maybe not even that access is permitted.

Also probate costs a LOT of money, even for someone with little to leave to their heirs in a will.

Having a revocable trust is so much simpler. No probate (so Joe Public does not learn your status and business upon your death) and no lock up of accounts etc. The next Trustee in line simply takes over the trust and everything continues as per the trust requirements.

Posted by:

Byron M
21 Jul 2019

After I die it won't matter whether anyone has access to my computer or online storage files etc.
I'll be dead and won't care about it.
I have insurance to cover my debts and have prearranged funeral expenses should the Medical Science and Research at Dal University refuse to take my corpse after I die.
Once I am dead I won't have any concerns about mortal life issues or what lingers on the Internet in Cyberspace. The older I get the less I am concerned about life issues/problems and what will happen after I die.

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