You’ve created a will, written an advance health-care directive and selected an executor for your estate. You’ve let your loved ones know your wishes in terms of finances and end-of-life care, but have you thought about what happens to your Facebook page or your iTunes collection after you’re gone?
From banking to photo-sharing, music and e-book libraries to bill-payment, our lives are increasingly being lived and stored online. We upload our latest family vacation photos to Shutterfly, download our favorite band’s new album from iTunes, and share our stories on Facebook. But when planning our estate, we don’t often think about what happens to these online accounts after our death. And unless you make plans ahead of time, when you die, your "digital assets" may be mismanaged, or even disappear entirely.
But there's plenty you can do right now to ensure the fate of your digital afterlife — and to make things easier for the ones you leave behind.
Step one: Take an inventory of your accounts
The simplest way to do this is to create a list of all of the websites you use in a month that require log-in information, and then, either in a secure document on your computer or in a notepad, write down the website, your log-in name and your password.
This list might include:
- Financial institutions such as banks, investment firms, credit card companies and insurance providers
- Utility and phone service providers or any company whose bill you pay online
- Medical billing accounts
- Email accounts
- Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or blogs you manage
- Photo-sharing sites such as Flickr or Shutterfly
- Digital music and e-book libraries
Step two: Review each account’s Terms of Service
Once you have a list of online accounts, you should read the terms of service (TOS) associated with each site. Though most of us don’t usually read the fine print, this document typically contains important information about what happens to your account when you die.
In many cases, the TOS gives you a nontransferable license, which means that no one else can access your account after your death. For example, when you purchase a song from iTunes or buy an ebook for your Kindle, don't actually own the item. Instead, you purchase a license to use the download during your lifetime. So don't promise someone your iTunes collection before making sure that it's yours to pass on.
When it comes to your email, some service providers, such as Yahoo!, consider your account terminated upon your death. Federal law prohibits these companies from divulging your personal email contents without your consent. If you want your heirs to be able to access your email after you're gone, you should draft a statement to that effect.
Social media sites have begun offering additional services, such as the Facebook feature that allows friends and family members to share memories of a deceased loved one on his or her timeline. The service can be activated once the site receives proof of that person's death, and deactivated at a family member's request.
Photo-sharing sites such as Shutterfly and Flickr are a great way to share favorite moments, but if you want your family to be able to access your digital photos after you're gone, save your favorite images to your computer and back up on a external hard drive, CD, or cloud storage system (if you use a cloud system, make sure you include your username and password information in your account list). This will make it easier for your most treasured images to stay in the family.
Step three: Make sure your heirs have access
Your will is a public document so you won’t want to include the list of usernames and passwords directly within it. Instead, specify the storage location of the list within this document.
Just as creating a will or an advanced directive is an act of love to try and make your death easier on your family, having clear plans in place when it comes to your digital life will help relieve stress on your loved ones left behind.