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Will your family be able to figure out what your post-mortem digital wishes are or know how to deactivate or "memorialize" your accounts? If you're not sure, here's what you need to know so you can begin to protect your digital legacy.
What are digital assets?
Digitally speaking, it seems nearly everyone has an email account, at the very least. But so many of us have many more digital assets. Digital photos, music-storage accounts such as iTunes, various online accounts, email, social media sites and cloud accounts comprise the main, and often overlooked, digital assets the average person has, says Adnan D. Chahbar, an attorney at Siskinds LLP in London, Ont. Most of us with a computer, Internet service and a smartphone have all of those things, and we don't think twice about what will happen to them if we were to die suddenly.
How can I protect myself and my family at a minimum level?
"The most basic advice I can give is to ensure that those who survive have some means of being made aware of the deceased's passwords," says Chahbar. "This list will have to be continuously updated. Perhaps keep them in a safety deposit box or, alternatively, a secure place at home."
They'll also need the data or online accounts to which such passwords relate. And remember to back up your assets regularly, a lesson most of us have learned the hard way after we've lost something important on our computers.
What info should I list on paper?
This is not a comprehensive list (so consult an estate planner or a lawyer who can speak to digital assets to make sure you've covered all bases), but here are some basic accounts to keep in mind when taking inventory of your digital assets:
- Social media accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr), their handles or account names and passwords. (Remember to include review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp.)
- Email accounts and their respective passwords, including email accounts you don't use very often
- iTunes and Google Play
- Online banking
- Retail websites you have accounts with
- Websites where you're a seller, such as Amazon, Etsy, eBay and Craigslist
- Where your digital photographs and video and other digital files are kept and how to access them
Should my will include digital-estate details?
Yes, because a lack of detail can cause difficulties for those left behind. "Many of my clients, during the preparation of their wills, tend to gloss over how they want their digital assets to pass when they die," says Chahbar. "When the estate trustee visits us in order to assist with the administration of the deceased's will, we often struggle mightily with those assets and how to deal with them."
Consider this: Much of our financial, personal and professional information is found online—and not anyplace else, says Chahbar. That's why it's best to be as detailed as you can when it comes to your digital assets and your estate.
What happens with the big social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn?
Once you're gone, you won't be posting, tweeting or updating your own feeds, but others can still post to your walls and tweet at you. No agency automatically steps in to deactivate or memorialize your accounts, and different social media networks have varying ways of allowing accounts to be deactivated: There's no standard operating procedure among them.
However, in a nutshell, Facebook will allow an account to be memorialized after a death. Twitter allows for deactivation by an authorized person; you can find its policies here. And LinkedIn will remove the profile of a deceased person if you get in touch with the company. LinkedIn differs from the other two sites in that you don't have to be an authorized representative of the deceased to file a request for review. Online services exist that will aggregate your social media info and even allow you to designate a trusted source to act on your behalf after you pass away. Check out the website Mashable's list of resources for handling social media after death.
Don't only rely on online advice about digital assets
We may sound like we're contradicting ourselves, but don't believe everything you read online. Keep in mind that what you learn online about digital-estate planning might be intended for an audience in the United States or another country, so it may not apply to you. According to Chahbar, some U.S. jurisdictions have enacted or are going to enact specific laws with respect to digital assets and wills. Such is not yet the case in Canada. Chahbar writes more about Canadian estate planning in the digital age here.
The best way around this, of course, is to seek a professional opinion from a lawyer or an estate planner in your province or territory.