The convenience of having our lives online can spell trouble for our heirs after we pass. Without access to our multitude of accounts, they may suffer both emotional and financial impacts. They may not be able to access family photos, for example, or close your accounts or pay your final bills.
The problem is compounded by the nature of online accounts. Some banks do not have brick-and-mortar locations, so your executor will not be able to simply walk into a branch to access your account. Other accounts have terms of service that may put your heirs’ ability to access your information into question.
The federal government has yet to pass legislation on accessing digital media, so it has been left up to the states to pick up the ball. About 30 states have passed what’s called the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act.
If you live in California, then you may remember that the governor signed the bill into law in 2016. The California rule created three tiers for granting your executor (or personal representative) access:
- Tier 1: If you have used an online tool like Google’s Inactive Account Manager, that tool will dictate how your account will be handled after you died.
- Tier 2: If you did not use an online tool, then the wishes you have spelled out in a trust, will, power of attorney, or other estate planning vehicle will apply.
Even with these rules, you should understand that your family may face hurdles. As this article points out, the communications industry supported the law because it provided protections for them that may make access problematic for your loved ones.
What Should You Do?
In short, you shouldn’t rely solely on the law. You should take action to ease your family’s access to your digital assets during what will already be a stressful time. Here are some steps to consider taking:
- Detail every aspect of your online world, from bitcoin accounts to LinkedIn profiles. Detail your wishes for those accounts, whether they should be cashed out, closed down, or left online as a memorial. Put your instructions in writing.
- Make sure your executor has access to your accounts. With your instructions, you can include a list of usernames and passwords, and place the list in a safe deposit box or with your attorney. Alternatively, you can use a password manager such as LastPass, but you will still need to ensure that your executor has access to your LastPass username and password.
- Talk with your attorney about the best way of making sure your digital assets are handled in the way you see fit, whether that’s through a will, trust, or power of attorney.
- Keep your information current. Updated usernames and passwords or new online accounts need to be documented in order to be helpful.
As our lives are moved to the internet, it’s important for us to incorporate our digital assets into our estate plans. Leaving our loved ones to sort out our online accounts can create a burden that they may not be able to overcome, given the infancy of laws and companies’ ownership of accounts. By spelling out our wishes and providing ease of access, we can help support our families through what is already a trying time.
- Tyson E. Hubbard, “A Friend Request from the Beyond: California’s New Post-Death Digital Assets Law,” Trust on Trial, January 10, 2017, https://www.trustontrial.com/2017/01/a-friend-request-from-the-beyond-californias-new-post-death-digital-assets-law.
- Richard Winblad, “Do Your Digital Accounts Die with You? Can Yahoo Withhold or Destroy Records?” Winblad Law PLLC, October 20, 2017, http://winbladlaw.com/digital-accounts-in-probate.
- Nolo.com, “The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA),” https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/ufadaa.html.
- Bazikyan Law Group, “New California Digital Asset Law,” http://bazikyanlaw.com/2016/10/13/new-california-digital-asset-law.