Prying loose your digital life

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My friend’s father died recently. Among the most frustrating aftermaths has been the difficulty in figuring out his digital life — closing accounts like Paypal and Facebook, for example.

Neither my friend nor her mother have any idea what his passwords were. If they did, they could actually be in violation of the terms of service from Facebook and some other large digital companies.

A few years ago, Yahoo! garnered a lot of criticism about similar policies that prevented the family of a soldier killed in Iraq from accessing his email. Two years ago, CNN reported that actor Bruce Willis threatened to sue Apple after he realized that he couldn’t leave his large iTunes library to his heirs. Note that under iTunes’ terms of service, users buy a license only.

Leasing vs. owning

“When you sign the iTunes contract, you agree that you have a lifetime lease and you can’t sell or give anything away,” says Jamie Hopkins, professor at the American College of Financial Services and an attorney.

Last week, Delaware became the first state to give heirs the right to inherit digital assets in the same way they are able to inherit physical assets. The new law mirrors one recommended by the Uniform Law Commission, a non-profit that creates legislation designed to provide solutions across states. It got traction in Delaware after a constituent of state Rep. Darryl Scott, D-Dover, couldn’t access her late husband’s email. The email provider refused her request and instead deleted the account and all its stored information, according to the News-Journal, Delaware’s statewide newspaper.

The new Delaware law specifically gives heirs access to accounts pertaining to email, social media, social networking, file sharing, health insurance, health care, financial management, domain registration and domain name service, web hosting, tax preparation service and online stores. It only affects Delaware residents and has no impact on the thousands of businesses incorporated in the state.

Similar laws are likely to be passed in other states, but until that happens, Hopkins suggests that you do what you can to ensure that your loved ones aren’t locked out of online accounts to which they need access.

Hopkins says:

  • Pick your email and web host carefully. Not all email hosts are as rigid as some of the larger ones. Ask what their policies are in regard to who owns your content, and read carefully what you’re agreeing to before you sign.
  • Store passwords, usernames, log-in IDs, security questions and answers, and pin numbers in a secure manner. Make sure someone knows the location of this information.
  • Keep a list of the whereabouts of your most important assets, including any online banking and financial management accounts.
  • Back up important things offline. For instance, if you don’t want to lose your photos, don’t store them on Facebook.
  • Tidy up your digital life. There’s no point in saving things that are out of date, irrelevant or that you just don’t want others to read.

Read more about creating a digital estate plan.