New York Life | September 30, 2020
Updated October 14, 2023
Most of us are aware of the financial arrangements involved in planning for our loved ones after we’re gone. From writing a will to securing a life insurance policy, we know the steps we need to take, although many people put off this important financial preparation. In fact, two-thirds of Americans don’t have any will or other estate planning documents in place.1
Estate planning is an uncomfortable and difficult experience for many of us. As well as dealing with the emotional side of this kind of financial planning, we must also tackle a tangle of legal requirements over assets, bank accounts and other finances and, we now face the added complication of digital assets.
Our digital assets cover everything from our social media profiles, to our online shopping accounts and digital banking services like PayPal. Each and every one of the many accounts we sign up to in our lives will ideally be closed down after death, with access first given to our heirs so they can retrieve any assets and the precious photos and memorabilia that compose our digital footprint.
But, in reality, there is no easy way to pass on or close down all accounts at once and, because they are run by private companies, there can be grey areas over who is allowed to access the accounts and who owns their content. Accounts on services like Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube can hold photos, videos and documents that are precious to surviving family members, so it’s important to ensure our heirs will have access to them after we’re gone.
Worse still, left opened, these digital identities can become “zombie accounts” – a frequent target for hackers looking to skim personal information from real accounts to scam other people or even commit identity fraud.2
Outside of social accounts, many of us also hold accounts with online retailers, digital wallets and digital personal bank accounts. We may even hold cryptocurrencies or stocks in online trading accounts, which loved ones may not be aware of.
Tracking down all bank accounts and assets of someone without a will is already very difficult, so much so that there are probate attorneys and firms that specialize in locating these so-called “hidden assets.” With online accounts, there is often no paperwork at all, which makes them doubly challenging to track down. If heirs don’t know an account exists, it may be lost forever.
We also need to be aware that even if we make our wishes about digital assets perfectly clear, they may not always be honored. Some of our digital assets contain licensing agreements that expire at the time of death, for example, books on a Kindle book reader or music on a streaming service like Spotify.
From Facebook to Google to Apple, private companies all have their own policies on how the accounts of deceased individuals are handled. We need to check the policy of each one and see if they have any processes we can set in motion ahead of time. For example, Google has an Inactive Account Manager function that can be set up by each user, which is activated after a certain period of inactivity.3
The key to protecting all your digital assets, from the social to the financial, is leaving a record. This is not an endeavor that should be left until you are writing your will, but something that you do as part of your every-day personal documentation. Keep a record of all accounts, with usernames and passwords, store them in a safe place and share a copy with lawyers and executors. One easy way to do this is using a password manager, so that all accounts can be accessed with a master password. The master password can be left with a solicitor or we can just tell our loved ones.
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1 2020 Estate Planning and Wills Study, Caring.com, December 2019, Accessed September 9, 2020
2 Why is hacking into dead people’s Facebook accounts so popular? Death.io, February 15, 2019, Accessed September 9, 2020
3 How to prepare your Google account for when you pass away, Android Central, June 19, 2018, Accessed September 9, 2020