Death in the Digital Age

From email accounts to social media pages, our digital presence often extends further than we realize. In today’s digital society, a significant portion of a decedent’s assets may consist of ‘digital assets’ including domain names and online subscriptions.  Unlike the typical tangible assets we’re accustomed to, ‘digital assets’ are often difficult to obtain, thus making the job of executor that much more stressful.  

As Greg Lastowka, Professor of Law at Rutgers Camden, stated in Living and Dying in a Virtual World, 

Executors and administrators of estates cannot disregard a decedent’s digital assets. In New Jersey, personal representatives of estates are duty-bound to settle and distribute an estate as “expeditiously and efficiently as is consistent with the best interests of the estate”.  Moreover, personal representatives are responsible for valuing assets of the estate and paying any state and federal inheritance and estate tax that may be due on those assets. While an online photo archive may not amount to substantial value for these purposes, adecedent’s PayPal or virtual current account may. These duties certainly extend to digital assets and accounts that represent offline monetary value. However, while executors and administrators can normally reach a decedent’s tangible personal property with relative ease, today’s digital assets are typically password-protected. Decedents may have dozens of accounts, each with its own unique login and password combination. Fiduciaries may not be aware of the existence or location of the decedent’s accounts, and even if they are aware, they may be unable to obtain access if passwords are not written down and kept up to date. Moreover, technology is continually changing, and what may be behind login and password today could be secured in other ways in the future.

While there’s been a strong push by lawmakers to enact legislation to deal with this ‘digital asset’ crisis, we at RLG believe individuals should take steps now to ensure their ‘digital assets’ are obtainable in the event of illness or death.  If you want to control your digital legacy, follow the tips we’ve provided.

Assign a Digital Executor/Proxy!

Your digital executor/proxy should be given access to all digital account information, including passwords and usernames.  When death or illness strikes, your digital executor/proxy will follow your wishes in either closing or preserving digital accounts.  If you fail to assign a trusted individual to this role, you’ll be leaving your family in the dark as to how you intended your digital legacy to live on.  In addition, without a bearer of your digital account information, your family will likely be denied access to many of your online accounts.  Companies such as, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, require extensive documentation, including death certificates and court orders, in order to release account information to next of kin.  If you’re unsure as to what information your next to kin will need to preserve your digital accounts, we recommend checking out this link, Closing Digital Account Post-Death.

Deactivate Accounts

Even if you were diligent in appointing a digital executor/proxy, you should also take steps to have auto-deactivation of digital accounts upon the occurrence of death or inactivity. Many social media sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google, have settings that allow users to preprogram account deactivation.  Taking advantage of what the sites have already provided will help relieve the emotional stress involved when a family member has to look back at your once active accounts.

Install End-of-Life Tools

Recognizing the crisis at hand, many companies have designed programs that assist in the preservation and/or closing of digital accounts.

Cirrus : Allows individuals to store and save usernames, passwords, and instructions which will then be released to the named digital executor.

Dead Social: Creates goodbye messages, photos, and videos that are published upon your digital executors request.

If I Die: For Facebook only, this site allows you to create a video message that will be published to your followers upon your death.

Like all estate planning, it’s best to get started early.  If you have any questions on ways you can protect and control your digital legacy contact RLG for a consultation.ICS-NO-BACKGROUND