What happens to your digital estate and online holdings when you die?

by Fred Showker

Fred Showker Have you planned your online estate? They say failing to plan is planning to fail -- and while nobody wants to talk or think about their own death, you owe it to the ones left behind to do some serious planning. For some time, I've investigated the ins and outs of estate planning for online real estate. My estate planning attorney says treat that just about like any other property you own. That's the starting point. Although your digital estate carries its own set of rules, it needs careful, accurate estate planning just like your real-life estate.

All those from the aging boomer generation are now in the phase of deciding how to prepare their estates for their eventual demise. Internet property is very similar to real, real estate. Various online accounts have value, and or obligations that will need a resolution upon your death. Let's get one thing clear up front : you don't necessarily have to do anything at all. But first ask what you want to happen.

Online companies, including Google, are coming out with programs and products to "help" you with your estate. Don't jump into those until you've read this. Chances are, you don't need any help. If there are partners, measurable wealth or debt involved, then you will need your attorney. Additionally, much will depend on your particular state laws and regulations.

Planning your online estate : first steps:

The first and most important step is easy. If you are the sole owner of your internet holdings then take an assets inventory. Be be accurate, be complete. Assume the person reading this after your passing will know nothing about the web.

The Estate Inventory

  • Specifically list each and every web entity you own
  • Briefly describe each entity, it's purpose, and how it works
  • Specifically list the provider for each entity.
  • Provide exact URL, FTP and login or cPanel addresses for each
  • Provide exact expiration dates for each
  • Provide accurate IDs and passwords where required

Along with a complete and detailed listing, you also should provide contact info for any service providers, programmers or web sub-contractors who have worked with your holdings. This can be very important. Remember, someone will have to close those accounts or move them into an 'estate' account, log in and delete content, close web sites or pages or blogs and so forth. Be accurate. Be specific.

Next step : Designate who will handle your online affairs

Next, you need someone who will take care of this for you -- someone you can trust, and someone who has your best interest in mind. That person will be obligated to take the role, so, call them and discuss this role with them. A spouse, family members or friends will usually accept the challenge, and consider it an honor.

Your executor can be different from the executor of your real-world estate, but it is very important that this person be aware of the responsibilities of your bequest. You could also assign your real-world executor with the option to hire a "guru" to help through the process. You can also assign your attorney or law firm, or even a bank to handle this for you. They will be happy to discuss this with you -- and most likely, they'll take a fee from your estate for this service.

Rule of thumb: the more complicated the digital estate, the more competant your exector should be.

Last but not least : The Bequest

With your inventory and your exector you now add the third and final element : the bequest. Simply put, the bequest is a short, clear document stating how you want your digital life resolved. Who will do it, and what will be done.

I have followed the lead set forth by my estate attorney: a recently updated digital "will" is printed and provided to my attorney as part of my will. It describes all the properties in detail, but not the id, logins, passwords, etc. It instructs my exector to "find" the most recent and final copy of the requests on my computer under a specific file name. This way, some detail that may change repeatedly, like passwords, can be updated regularly without affecting the recorded will.

What you do with your digital estate is your call. You can give it to anyone you desire, or you can merely request it be shut down and deleted. You can let your domains go dark, and expire. If the Design Center is not sold, or taken over for continuation, I am providing renewal payment for my domains because I don't want them falling into the hands of domainers, spammers or other cybercrooks. If there is a known value to the entity, you can specify it be "sold" and proceeds added to your financial estate. If you've had friends or contacts who would benefit from the properties, you can name those benefactors.

In the case of PayPal or other 'financial' accounts that may have funds in them, you treat those just like a real-world account. Cash them out, and put the funds in an 'estate' account, close the Paypal, and add it as a line item to your estate chart of accounts. In most online accounts such as Paypal, you can export the entire history in various formats -- even Excel.

The final step: Make it legal

Take your letter to a public notary, along with one witness -- all three sign, and the notary stamps the seal -- now it is a legal document. You can also do this at your attorney's office, if you have an estate planning attorney.

Keep it current: Each time you change something, ammend your documents. Make sure that this document continues to be part of your will and estate planning packages. It can be as simple as a letter to your attorney, a sealed letter in a safe deposit box, or a trusted family member who will survive you. Ask your counsel for specific procedures and advice.

What about a "Social Media Will"

Social media is a bit different. You don't own that. So, in all your documentation, list your various Facebook, Twitter and other accounts, ID, Passwords, etc. Next, make very clear requests of what should be posted on the front pages, and how/when to shut it down and delete all the data. You may wish to just leave it. Generally that's okay if it's really what you want. But be assured, people will find it and look at it again and again into the future. At the very least, some announcement needs to be posted so people know. Again, all of this is a matter of personal preference.

Although I'm not really sure how I feel about letting Google into my personal life, they have recently added a feature that lets you decide what happens when you no longer use your account. It's called Inactive Account Manager and the goal was to offer a feature that tells Google "what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account". But if you trust Google, then this may be the way to go. Read about Google's plan for your digital afterlife, and using Google's Inactive Account Manager. But remember that if you have properties other than Google+, Google, YouTube, Picasa or Blogger, then you'll need the other elements discussed above anyway.

What about my computer?

Again, a personal preference. Specify the demise of your computer's content in your document. There are many options -- wipe it and sell it, gift to someone, or be resolved as another piece of furniture in your estate. But take care to designate what happens to the content -- the data on the hard drive. There may be things on there you don't want anyone to have. Make your wishes very clear.

We're seeing a lot of companies coming out with programs and products to "help" you with your digital, online estate planning. It's your choice to use these or not. The above is a good, wrap-around solution that you can do yourself, without such help. If you have a question or cannot decide how to handle a particulare aspect of your online estate planning, give me a shout and I'll do my best to help!

And, thanks for reading

Fred Showker

Don't forget ... we encourage you to share your discoveries with other readers. Just send and email, contribute your own article, join the Design Cafe forums, or follow DTG on Facebook!

30th Anniversary for DTG Magazine