Estate Planning: Tips for Getting Your Digital House in Order
by Emily Morgan
Amanda Singleton, writing for AARP (aarp.org/caregiving/financial-legal/info-2019/digital-assets-planning.html), was reflecting on her mother’s sudden cancer diagnosis and how fortunate it was that her mom had written down her online accounts and passwords, which helped Amanda keep “the gears” of her mother’s life turning during her final days and, ultimately, dispense with her estate, including erasing her mother’s digital footprint.
|“Her foresight in creating the little black book helped me get by.”
In today’s society, after people die, they leave behind a vast amount of personal information in online banking accounts, social media platforms, and email accounts (plus documents, photos, and other digital assets stored on local devices). Whether you are doing your own estate planning or helping your patrons prepare for their own inevitability, this article provides you with a road map. The five tips listed here are meant to help those who want to give their heirs and successors a break when having to deal with the telltale digital footprints and online ghosts they will leave behind.
Tip 1: Appoint a Digital Executor
Just as you would not write a will without designating an executor, the first—and possibly most challenging—decision you will make is naming a digital executor (i.e., placing your digital content in the hands of someone you trust). Remember, unprotected digital content means vulnerable assets. A digital executor is someone who will take responsibility for your digital content to ensure your data is handled appropriately, legally, and according to your wishes.
Digital executors are granted control of your assets in a letter of instruction. It is important to note that you can also use this letter to bar an individual from access to your digital content if you believe a given family member, friend, or acquaintance will misuse your digital assets.
If you are unsure how to start a letter of instruction, consult these great resources: The Digital Beyond, a website by Evan Carroll and John Romano, and Denis Clifford’s Estate Planning Basics. At this stage, enlisting your estate planner/lawyer’s help is recommended, so your document follows all legal guidelines. Once the paperwork is finalized, meet with your digital executor, and explain why you chose them for the job and how you want them to proceed.
Tip 2: Review Terms of Service
The second most essential step in arranging your digital affairs is knowing your Terms of Service (TOS). The TOS window pops up every time you subscribe to, download from, or begin a new service. It’s in the window you probably never read and on which you just blindly click Accept in order to get on with the registration process. However, knowing the various terms you have agreed to will help you understand what decisions you may need to make, thus guiding your instructions.
The number of TOS agreements you need to check may have dramatically increased in the last few months, given how our lives have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may have been shopping online more, and each of your consumer accounts has its own login credentials. You may have installed new social media apps in order to keep in touch with friends, colleagues, or relatives. Who does the content you created and shared belong to? And what happens when you’re gone?
As many of you may have guessed, not all of your data or personally identifiable information is wholly yours. While that’s old news to librarians, some of your patrons may find the idea that their information is sold to third-party information farming sites to be foreign, shocking, and invasive. But we let go of little bits of personal information every time we agree to a new TOS contract. In many ways, granting permission for an information provider to use your information is beneficial. For example, when Google uses your location to help populate an Instagram or Facebook post, that’s generally a good thing. But conversely, when you get a scam phone call seemingly out of the blue, and you wonder how they got your number? The answer is that your TOS agreement permits it.
You may also have agreed that if the provider loses your content or user data, you have no recourse. And then there are the terms that relate to what happens when an account holder dies. Yahoo mail, for example, retains the right to a person’s data and emails in the event of their passing, unless a family member obtains a court order to prove their relationship to the deceased (tinyurl.com/y3cjol2v). The bottom line is, knowing your TOS helps you understand what needs to be done to protect your personal information and assure your survivors have the legal footing they require to obtain or remove the content you have created or to delete entire accounts.
You can better protect your data by using a VPN. VPNs lock your information from hackers or third-party information-farming by extending a private network across a public network. As with password managers, VPNs are free or freemium, and some of the more popular services include ExpressVPN, TunnelBear, Privacy Badger, and DuckDuckGo.
Tip 3: Review and Document Your Online Accounts
Next—and possibly the most time-consuming portion of protecting your digital content—comes the task of tracking down all of your online accounts that are password-protected. Listing your accounts helps you get a general idea of what you are dealing with in terms of access. Once you have all—or, realistically, most—of the accounts you know you have to log in to, then comes the fun part of listing all of the passwords, security questions, and PINs.
The best practice here is to start with paper and pencil and then move to an electronic list. There are several websites you can use to track your passwords, security questions, and PINs. The most commonly used sites include Dashlane, LastPass, and 1Password. Be aware that web-based password-organizing tools can be free, freemium, or subscription-based. You can always use your browser’s built-in password tracker, but err on the side of caution and be mindful of these programs’ safety and security parameters.
Tip 4: Declutter Your Digital Assets
After you have sorted and recorded the credentials for your online accounts, it’s time to determine what to keep and what to toss, delete, or deactivate. If you are like most of us, you tend to keep things in digital form that you would not keep in paper. Such digital hoarding may not cause physical clutter, but it’s clutter nonetheless—clutter you tend to forget about because it occupies the digital realm. Your digital clutter may not be limited to your online accounts. If you have multiple hard drives, USBs, and cloud servers full of stuff, you might be shocked at how much stuff you are hoarding. Declutter them.
While researching this topic, one of the best pieces of advice I read was to delete or clean out files to clear up space regularly. Remember, if it “does not spark joy” or, in this case, if the data does not significantly impact your letter of instruction, it is best to delete it. Clearing your data not only helps you gain more control over your digital content now, but will be of immeasurable help to those you entrust to navigate, review, sort, and decide what to do with your digital collections. It’s overwhelming to have to sift through gigs of stored files on a good day, so imagine how your executor will feel trying to do it after you are gone. Deleting what you don’t want or need any longer will help those you leave behind protect the things that are most important to protect.
An easy way to cut down on the clutter is to delete duplicate digital files that you may have stored on multiple devices under various names. In general, be mindful of how and where you are saving your files. If you are saving duplicates on hard drives and USBs, it will be hard for your survivors to clean out files. Regularly cleaning out your files and rounding up all of your account information is a daunting task for anyone; however, no one understands your digital space better than you. Remember that cleaning out your files and getting your digital affairs in order is a work in progress.
Tip 5: Decide What You Want to Happen
After you have set the groundwork by defining your digital assets, your survivors will be in a better position to delete (or archive) your files and memorialize (or close) your email and social media accounts, according to your wishes. Bear in mind that shutting down your accounts will be a time-consuming process for your executor, as each service provider will have different rules and regulations.
For example, to memorialize a Facebook page, your executor will have to contact Facebook by filling out an online form. The vendor will get in touch with the executor, usually within 1–2 business days, and a member of Facebook’s public relations team will verify that the deceased’s account information is correct. The account will be memorialized on the same day. Facebook also has a similar set of procedures when it comes to removing or deleting an account entirely. You can find the information on memorializing and deleting Facebook accounts here: tinyurl.com/y6r6ucp6.
Gmail offers something similar in that you can (in advance) set what is called an Inactive Account Manager to notify contacts of your passing after so many months of inactivity. You can personalize the message or use one of the canned responses from Google. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/y3kq2szf.
Yahoo accounts get a little tricky, in that even if your executor has permission to access your account, they would have to obtain a court order proving your relationship. The account would then be deleted after 90 days (tinyurl.com/y4hpguh3).
I know this task sounds daunting, a little frightening, or maybe even overwhelming, given how much we have all invested in technology throughout our lifetimes. However, with the right guidance and resources, you can successfully prepare your digital assets for their own hereafter.
Let me close with my top five steps for preparing for the dispensation of your digital assets when the time comes—and may it be ages away.
- Write down all of your account usernames, passwords, PINs, and security questions. Keep them accessible, and update them regularly.
- Delete any accounts, files, data, or documents you no longer need.
- Consider what should happen with your email and social media accounts.
- Draft a letter of instruction, and seek legal guidance from your estate planner/attorney.
- Go over everything with your trusted executor.
And, don’t forget to share what you have learned with your patrons, because they, too, have digital estates to protect.