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If you were drafting a will, would you be able to list all your items? Would you include just the physical and financial items?
In the 21st century, people are surrounded by a different type of wealth – a digital one. The amount of data and footprint we leave online is so great that many believe it holds all the data that makes us us. All our emails, subscriptions, social media groups, and pages we liked, to music and images – these are all little bits and pieces that comprise a human being; one’s personality.
Considering, it is not so hard to understand why a loved one would like to gain access to all of it upon one’s passing.
The value of our online estate
Our digital assets can have both sentimental and monetary value. Look at it this way:
If the deceased conducted an online business, access to all related digital assets is vital to keeping the business afloat. According to Suzanne Brown Walsh, an attorney who chaired the drafting committee on the proposed legislation, our email accounts have become our filing cabinets. Thus, to appoint a new head of business operations, the successor should gain access to all digital assets essential for the continuance of the business legacy.
Our email accounts are our filing cabinets these days.
On the other hand, the collection of photographs we keep on Google Drive or iCloud is of sentimental value to everyone who needs to glance at a memory captured in a picture to tend to their nostalgia. Just as we used to fight over the ownership of one’s physical photo albums, we are now fighting for the password protected .jpeg files.
But in an absence of a will, who gets to decide whether or not the ownership rights are transferred to you, or anyone else?
You may have revealed your account details to one person you trust the most, however, that doesn’t mean they will gain access rights to your accounts after you are gone. Here’s the deal: anti-hacking laws and most company’s terms of service agreements prevent anyone from accessing the deceased’s account, even if they have account details at their disposal.
In fact, it is up to the company that provides digital services to decide what happens to the account. If anyone (except the account owner) was to oppose the decision in the court of law, they are likely to lose the case.
Digital providers’ solutions
Over the years, social networks and different online service providers attempted to solve the issue of allocation of digital assets.
- Facebook allows you to decide whether you want your account deleted or a legacy contact appointed to manage your memorialized account.
- Google’s services, including Gmail, YouTube, and Picasa Web Albums monitor users’ login times. A person can choose to set up an inactive account manager and define a time frame within which Google should delete their account if there’s no activity. Alternatively, someone can make a request on the deceased person’s behalf to delete the account, request for funds from the account, or ask to obtain data from the account. In any case, the final decision is made after a detailed review.
- Yahoo includes in its terms and conditions that no account can be transferred to a third person upon the account owner’s passing. However, it is possible for anyone to send a request to Yahoo and have the account deleted.
- When it comes to your personal website, if you don’t make any special arrangements and leave it with a trusted person, it will seize to exist. There won’t be anyone to pay for domain name registration and hosting fees, to update content, to answer emails, etc.
But due to the diversity of online service providers we entrust with a variety of our personal data and digital items, it’s quite challenging to properly manage a deceased’s online belongings.
Music and audio files especially should be handled with due diligence. Namely, granting access to a loved one’s files is one thing, but it’s imperative to restrict anyone from copying the files to prevent the violation of license agreements.
Uniform Law Commission
The right to access and manage the deceased’s digital assets has been a debatable topic for years. Terms of service agreements and privacy policies changed time and time again in an attempt to find a solution that would be respectful of the owner’s wishes and his loved ones. Today, laws differ from one state to the other, however, the most common practice is to grant access to the deceased’s digital assets, but not control of it.
What this means, for instance, is that a loved one can access an email account and go through all emails without being able to send any; they will be able to access social media profiles without the privilege to post, comment, or send chat messages on the deceased’s behalf.
It is up to you
It is not uncommon for a person to specify what happens to their digital assets after passing. In fact, it’s advisable to handle the matter and ensure your data is in safe hands, and your loved ones are left with valuable business data or personal memorabilia.
Conduct personal digital audit to create an inventory of all your digital assets. Everything from your personal and business email accounts, to social media, online storage, and music accounts. Then you can back up your contents on all of your devices and be sure to include account information in the online backup inventory.
Clearly outline your wishes in your will or in a digital addendum to ensure your digital assets are handed over to the right person. To be absolutely certain your requests are properly carried out, select a digital executor who will pass on your wishes to your loved ones.
Our digital self became an extension of our physical being. It’s no less important what happens to our electronic footprint than to our house, banking account, or any valuables you may have stored in the attic.
Though we are never really mentally prepared for our demise, to make your passing easier on the loved ones who are left behind, it’s best to plan even for one such an unfortunate event. Only then can you be sure your wishes will be respected and your items will end up in safe hands.