What happens to your electronic data when you die?

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What Happens To Your Electronic Data When You Die?


From banking and social media to email, I-Tunes and beyond, our lives are increasingly being lived and stored online. We upload family pictures to photo-sharing sites, download our favorite books into e-readers and share many of our stories on Facebook and Twitter. But what happens when we die? While probate courts have established procedures to distribute physical items, only a handful of states have laws governing the management — and inheritance — of online property. Unless you make specific plans for your digital afterlife, experts say, your “digital assets” stand a good chance of being mismanaged — or of disappearing entirely.


The good news is that there’s plenty you can do now, before the unexpected happens, to ensure you get to determine the fate of your online life and additionally make things easier for the loved ones you leave behind.  Before you can decide how you want your digital assets managed after your death, you first need to take an inventory of your accounts.  The simplest way to do this? Write down all the websites you use in a week or month that require log-in information, and then, either in a secure document on your computer or in a notepad, write down the website, your log-in name and your password.

Financial data.  This is perhaps the information most crucial to your heirs and some of the hardest to access. The types of accounts include the obvious bank and investment accounts but also services you use to check on those investments, such as Yahoo! or MSN.com. If you can, specify your beneficiaries directly on the websites of the financial institutions.

Download and/or print out your account statements monthly or quarterly. This creates a hard copy of the information either on paper or on your personal computer, eliminating the problem of accessing your accounts. Anything on your personal computer will become part of the estate, and the estate will access the information, and they will distribute the information that is on it.

E-mail accounts.  Your first step should be to read the account’s terms of service (TOS). We know — no one really reads the fine print when signing up for an online service like email. Still, this document contains important information about what happens to your account when you die. Some email providers, like Yahoo!, consider your account terminated upon your death.  It’s important to remember that strict federal law governs the release of private messages like email.  If you want your heirs to be able to access your email after you’re gone, draft a statement to that effect. The law in this area is still in its infancy and much uncertainty remains.

Social media accounts.  As with email, the rules regarding what happens to your Facebook or Twitter account upon your death are spelled out in the TOS agreement. But several social media sites have also begun offering additional services. In 2009, Facebook added a feature that allows friends and family members to share memories of a deceased loved one on his or her Timeline. The service can be activated once the site receives proof of that person’s death, and deactivated at a family member’s request. In April 2013, Google launched Inactive Account Manager, which allows individuals to designate up to 10 trusted friends or relatives as beneficiaries of their online accounts.

Music, e-books, etc.  When you download a song from I-Tunes or a book to Kindle or other e-reader, you don’t actually own the item. Instead, you purchase a license to use the download during your lifetime.  So don’t promise someone your amazing I-Tunes collection before making sure that it’s yours to pass on.  Photo-sharing sites such as Shutterfly and Flickr are a great way to share memories of vacations and grandkids, but if you want your heirs to be able to access your digital photos after you’re gone, download your favorites and save a copy to your hard drive. This will make it easier for your most treasured images to stay in the family. Also, your loved ones won’t have to sort through thousands of images after your death.

*Consider referencing each of these items, specifically, in your Will or Estate Plan*

For more information or help planning your estate call the Law Offices of Brian Tanko today at: (702) 367-6636



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