What are digital assets & what happens to them after you’re gone?

Nowadays a lot of our lives take place online – emails and texts to friends and family, shopping, social media. We store important documents and precious memories in the cloud. But what happens after death – who has access to our online accounts and assets? Much of that is determined by the digital estate planning we do today.
 
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When writing a will, don’t forget your digital assets and online accounts
 

What is a digital asset?

Just like we own physical assets with value such as houses, cash, cars, jewelry, land, etc., we also have digital assets. Digital assets apply solely to the technological sphere, and are defined as anything that is created and stored digitally which can also be identified to have value. Almost everyone storing their data digitally will have digital assets. Digital assets are not only information stored online or in the cloud. Digital assets also apply to information stored on your physical device such as your computer, laptop, or phone.

There are two types of digital assets and the main difference between the two is that one focuses on trading and storing distributed ledger technology such as bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, while the one we are highlighting is about all other digital values besides those with monetary value. Examples of the second kind of digital assets are:

  • Cloud storage
  • Photos
  • Documents
  • Data
  • Social media accounts
  • Videos
  • Personal data
  • Business data: logos, documents, registrations
  • Emails
  • Email accounts
  • Important passwords

Digital estate planning

When writing your will and thinking about what will happen to your money or possessions after you pass away, it is important to give some thought to your digital assets as well. This could include the aforementioned digital property, e.g. bitcoins, but also the contents of your digital communications like emails, text messages, digital images, music, social media and gaming avatars. And whereas the money in your online banking is not a digital asset in itself, your planning should include who you’d like to have access to such accounts.

There are several steps you should take in planning what happens to your assets: designating someone as legally responsible for your digital estate (a so-called “fiduciary” or “digital executor”), making a list of accounts and login credentials for that person, and setting up a legacy contact in advance with those online services that allow it.

What does the law say about online accounts after death?

In the United States, if you die or become unable to manage your online accounts, access to these accounts is regulated by the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). This act extends the powers of a traditional fiduciary to manage digital property like computer files or digital currency, but limits their access to your email and social media accounts unless you explicitly designate them in your will or another document. So, what happens to those accounts under the law?
  • If a digital service offers a tool to determine what happens to your account after you die, e.g. Facebook’s legacy contact, this guides how the account will be handled.
  • If the service does not provide such a function, the directions in your will determine who can make decisions about the account.
  • The digital service’s terms and conditions will dictate what kind of access these authorized individuals can have, e.g. can they access the data, deactivate the account, etc.
Laws vary according to jurisdiction and are continuously evolving, so it is worth taking the time to research what rules apply in your specific case and checking periodically for changes.

Making an inventory of your online accounts

To help your next of kin handle your digital estate after you are gone, you can make a list of your online accounts and the login credentials. This could include, but might not be limited to:
  • Email accounts
  • Online shopping sites
  • Social networks
  • Payment platforms
  • Your own website
  • Online messenger services
  • Cloud photo and document storage
  • Streaming platforms
In each case, you should include the following information:
  1. The name of the service and its internet address
  2. Your username and the email address associated with the account
  3. Your password
  4. What you want to happen to the account
Make sure to update the list regularly and write down the date each time you update it! Once you have made this list, make sure you keep it in a secure location, e.g. a safe, with other important documents you want your family or executor to have access to. Be sure not to leave your passwords in an open location where others might see them!

How to deactivate accounts when someone dies

We’ve put together a list of common online services and what they do with accounts after the owner passes away. Please also check the website of the service provider in question, as these policies are changed and updated regularly.
  • mail.com: If you have left your login credentials with your fiduciary, they can log in and follow the usual process for deleting your account. If your next of kin does not have your login credentials, they will have to contact our legal department and provide a death certificate to gain temporary access to your account. Otherwise the account will automatically be cancelled and then deleted after six months of inactivity, as per our terms and conditions.
  • Facebook: You can choose to have your account deleted after your death or transformed into a memorialized account where your friends and families can share memories. In the latter case, you appoint a “legacy contact” in advance who will manage your account after you are gone.
  • Google: You can set up an “inactive account manager” and choose which data you wish to share with them. Otherwise, after your death your next of kin will have to submit a request to Google to obtain access to the data in your account and/or close it.
  • X (formerly Twitter): Your account can be deactivated by your designated fiduciary or verified next of kin. They will have to complete a contact form and provide ID and a death certificate. However, X will not grant them access to your account. The company will also remove your account automatically after prolonged inactivity.
  • Snapchat: Like X, Snapchat will allow authorized individuals to deactivate an account if a death certificate is provided, but not to log in to the account.
  • LinkedIn: Authorized individuals can request to have your account closed. Unauthorized individuals can still report the death to LinkedIn, then they will memorialize the profile.  
  • Instagram: Immediate family members who can provide proof of death can choose whether to turn your account into a memorial account or close it. Unlike Facebook, there is currently not a system in place to set this up in advance.
  • WhatsApp: You can leave your executor or family member instructions to delete your account – all they need is access to your phone and phone number. Otherwise, WhatsApp accounts are generally deleted after 120 days of inactivity.
  • PayPal: Only your authorized executor or fiduciary can act on your behalf, and documentation such as ID and death certificate are required to close the account. If there are funds left in the PayPal account, all remaining funds will be transferred to the associated bank account.
  • Amazon: If your executor has your password, they can log in and follow the “Close Your Account” or “End Membership” instructions in the help section. Otherwise they will have to contact Amazon customer service and provide documentation to close the account.
  • Netflix: If your next of kin has access to the account, they can simply use the Cancel Membership link on the account page. Otherwise they should gather all your account information and contact customer service.
 
We understand that this is not a topic that anyone likes to think about, but we hope that the above article helped to highlight the importance of digital estate planning and gave you some useful starting points. We look forward to your feedback below.
 
This article first appeared on Oct. 6, 2021, and was updated on Dec. 14, 2023.

Image: 1&1/Shutterstock

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