Ever been haunted by a digital ghost? It happens more than you might imagine. You might receive a notification about a deceased friend’s birthday or a suggestion to congratulate a deceased colleague on a work anniversary. In fact, some estimate that in 2016 alone, over 900,000 Facebook users could pass away. That’s quite a few ghosts!
So what do we do to “exorcise any digital ghosts”? First, you should be aware of the scope of the issue. So many things fall into the category of a digital asset: phones, computers, tablets, Internet-connected devices like “smart” thermostats, apps, online shopping accounts, online banking accounts, online games, social media and more. Basically, if you’ve created a username and/or password for it, it’s a digital asset.
It can be difficult to gain access to devices and accounts after an owner has passed. Just think of the recent battle between Apple and the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, for example. Some accounts may require obtaining a subpoena for account records, such as an email account, and others may require a subpoena to get the username and password information just to close the account. That’s a long and costly process just for a password!
You should certainly start by creating a list of accounts with usernames and passwords. While privacy laws and terms of service agreements often mean your heirs cannot legally use those passwords without obtaining certain permissions, they will certainly need them. For those in states that have passed the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA (see our post here), you may be able to name a fiduciary to access your accounts to close, memorialize, or maintain them after you’re gone.
For anyone living in the 30 states yet to pass the Act, your best bet may be to work with service providers directly. Even those living under the RUFADAA must work within the confines of service providers’ terms of service agreements. That often makes digital footprints hard to erase, especially since many service providers are still developing their policies.
Doing nothing is not the best option, either. Often, keeping online accounts open with little to no supervision can leave a deceased person’s identity vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves. Estates can be quite profitable targets for identity thieves, who can sometimes glean security information like mother’s maiden names or the name of your first pet from unsupervised social media profiles.
It’s crucial to understand the importance of planning for your digital assets. With a little advance planning, you can minimize the burden later on your family and protect your estate from hackers and identity thieves.
This is a rapidly developing area of law. While Massachusetts and New Hampshire do not yet have laws on fiduciary access to digital assets on the books, we at Family Estate Planning Law Group continue to monitor the options available. For more information about FEPLG and our unique planning process, explore our website and contact us to schedule your consultation today!
Reference: Business 2 Community (October 25, 2016) “Digital Ghosts: How Your Identity Lives on After Death”