Most people keep their passwords stored in the safest spot they can think of — their own minds. However, what happens to the often dozens of online accounts after that person passes away? Suddenly Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email accounts are inaccessible, leaving families confused and overwhelmed with how to handle a loved one’s internet footprint. However, digital assets consume much more than just social media. Many California residents now deal with banking and other important financial commitments exclusively online, making it important to include relevant information in wills.
Long gone are the days of finding a loved one’s bank records, upcoming bills and business transactions in convenient paper format in their home. Individuals acting as legally recognized fiduciaries must now attempt to find these important records and other relevant assets online rather than in a physical folder in someone’s dresser drawer. With the ease of storage in the cloud and other online accounts, this process might not be so difficult if it were not for federal laws that do not allow unauthorized access to internet accounts and computers.
Also, many service providers strictly prohibit the sharing of data with anyone outside of the account. This is usually addressed in the terms of service agreements that most people agree to before signing up for online accounts. This means that simply including log-in information in a will might not be enough, and the person accessing the account in such a manner could still be acting illegally.
Many services now offer legacy options, giving users the ability to choose how their account should handled after their death, and by whom. In such instances, it is still a good idea to use wills to provide information regarding accounts and relevant log-in information. However, in the event that a loved one failed to take digital assets into account during estate planning, a 2015 law — the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act — can give estate executors the legal right to access these accounts. However, since California estate law can be understandably confusing, it might be a good idea to consult with experienced legal counsel before accessing any online accounts.
Source: Slate, “The Digital Afterlife Is a Mess“, Naomi Cahn, Nov. 29, 2017