Three Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Digital Estate

By Pierro, Connor, & Strauss, LLC.

While the internet makes our lives more convenient, it also adds new complications.  For example, what happens to all our online data and assets if we become disabled or pass away?

Whether or not we spend half our lives responding to devices, many of us transact a lot of our daily business online — buying items on Amazon, paying our bills through online bank programs, accumulating and using airline miles, reallocating our investments, saving photos, listening to music, watching movies, or planning trips. And that’s not even mentioning dating sites or social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

So, what happens to all these connections and information if you become disabled or die? Whom do you want to have access, and to which sites? For instance, although you may want your children to be able to access your financial accounts, do you want them scrutinizing your investments?

Let’s start with what not to do – sharing your passwords!

It seems so easy: just write down your username and password, and let your friend or loved one have access. But there are some major pitfalls to this strategy – not least the fact that passwords keep changing, and now with more and more websites and services enacting two-factor authentication, a password may not be enough.  As an example, if a bank doesn’t recognize the computer you’re using to log in, they may send a text to your phone asking for confirmation.  Without access to your physical devices, the username and password alone may not be sufficient. 

But equally important is that you’re asking your agent to break the law – even with your permission – if someone else logs in to your account. They’re likely violating several federal laws – identity theft (using someone else’s credentials), hacking (accessing a network inappropriately), and online fraud (misrepresentation over the internet).  If anything of value is removed without legal authorization, such as emptying a bank account, or cashing in digital currency, that turns them into a thief!

The following are three actions you can take to make sure your digital estate is not lost or falls into the wrong hands:

  1. Add digital provisions to your estate planning documents. Make sure your durable power of attorney and will specifically authorize your agent and personal representative to access your digital accounts.  49 States have enacted laws addressing access to digital accounts upon a person’s incapacity or death, with Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. considering such laws in the current legislative session.  With most states having passed the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act or the revised version thereof, standard provisions can be drafted that should be accepted by most digital vendors. 
  2. Check if the online company has provisions for substitute access. Many online companies have their own systems for providing limited access to others in the event of our incapacity or death. Carefully read what they say and whether it’s possible to name someone to have access when and if necessary. Google, for instance, allows you to name an Inactive Account Manager, and Facebook will ‘Memorialize’ your account, and can let you appoint a “Legacy Contact” who can update your profile or close your account.  Keep in mind that, just like beneficiary designations on a financial account, instructions in an online tool take precedence over your estate planning documents.
  3. Save elsewhere. If you have anything saved online that’s really important to you, such as photographs, videos, or certain papers and documents, save it somewhere else as well. Print out important papers. Save everything to your computer (making sure you share your password) and to a USB drive. In fact, you should copy to more than one USB drive to share with whomever you deem appropriate.

If you take these steps, you and your family will be at much less risk of losing access to and control of your online life, estate documents, and property. Since rules keep changing, it’s worth reviewing all of these steps on an annual basis. Schedule a free consultation at Pierro, Connor & Strauss, to review and improve safeguards for your digital estate.