Most people hope the last things they think about when they die will be loved ones, memories of times with great friends, or even profound thoughts on life. Nobody wants to think about their online legacy and worry that once they’re gone someone is going to look up the strange things they’ve Googled (like the terms “home remedy” and “wart removal”), or worse, find out that they’ve been cyber-stalking.
But beyond avoiding posthumous embarrassment from someone stumbling upon our browser history, it’s becoming increasingly more important to protect our digital footprints (the small and big ways in which we interact with the web every day) and our digital assets, like our social media accounts or virtual bank accounts, to avoid theft, fraud or even lawsuits after we’ve moved on to the free wi-fi in the sky.
Think about how many assets you have online. You likely have a few social profiles on Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat or Instagram. Do you have a digital Netflix or Hulu account? Maybe you’re a social videogamer or you pay for things using a Bitcoin or Paypal bank account. Do you run any sort of retail website or are you a business owner managing your company’s web presence? Do you shop online at big retailers like Target or Walmart or other sites that keep a record of sales and hold on to your credit card information?
Whether it’s for business or personal purposes, every time you update your profile, upload a video, order an item, or write an email, you are leaving your trace all over the internet. What happens to all of those accounts, messages, receipts and pictures when you’re gone? Most of us never consider it but if you don’t have a good plan in place, those digital assets could be misused or stolen and the consequences could cause serious problems for your business, friends and family.
When we think of estate planning we typically think of dividing up physical property or setting up trusts but with the amount of time we spend online, it’s now just as important to designate someone to manage our online legacies once we’re gone. Someone designated as your “digital executor” can maintain or close out any accounts and keep your digital assets and reputation safe from exploitation. Ideally the person you choose is someone who’s familiar with your online presence and would be formally set up to manage it after you die.
A digital executor is a key part of your estate plan and should be made aware of as much of your online profile as possible once you’re gone. Make an exhaustive list of your web presence, then gather the information for all of your accounts, including login names and passwords to pass along. Find out if any of the online services you use have legacy plans; for example, Facebook lets you pick a beneficiary for your account. This person is named your “Legacy Contact” and can manage your legacy account when you’re gone. Similarly, Google has an “Inactive Account Manager” that lets you set up trusted individuals to handle your account if you’ve remained inactive for a certain amount of time.
Most importantly, talk to a lawyer about drafting up a document allowing your digital executor to manage and maintain your digital assets when you die. Make sure that the digital executor is included in your larger will, so there isn’t a conflict between that executor and the person to whom all of your physical assets are transferred; you don’t want your spouse and your best friend, for example, to end up in a lawsuit over your digital assets.
The team at the law office of Christopher B. Johnson is experienced in all areas of wills and estates and can help you set up a digital executor to protect your digital assets as well as all other aspects of your estate planning.