What will happen to your digital treasures once you die?

One of the most remarkable changes from the electronic age has been the introduction of online accounts and cloud storage. Whether or not you intentionally store your photos, stories, blog posts, and email correspondence on a cloud-based storage platform, you’re probably using the cloud. Much of what you write, photograph and value is probably online on a social media platform like Facebook or Instagram.

At the same time, you may manage your bank account, investments, 401(k) plan, mortgage and bills online. Have you considered that your loved ones may lose access to all of those accounts if you should die without leaving a list of passwords?

Add a list of passwords to your estate documents and keep it rigorously updated. While your family can eventually get access to those accounts during probate, you can make it a lot easier for them if they have the passwords from the start.

Things are a little more complicated when it comes to the things you’ve stored online. If you don’t back up your photos, blog, website or other online projects routinely, the items may be primarily or only stored on these platforms. What happens to these treasured personal assets when you die?

As usual, the answer depends on how much planning you have done. For example, Google and Facebook offer the option of designating a legacy contact who can curate your account should you die. However, this only works if you’ve nominated someone.

The average internet user has 26 accounts that use around 10 different passwords, and many of those passwords get changed periodically. Would your family get access to those accounts?

In part, this depends on the terms of service for each individual account. You may be surprised to learn that the terms of service for many online platforms prohibits access by anyone but you, even upon your death.

Adding to the possible issues, most online services have terms and conditions that say they own all the materials you post. Moreover, many are located or managed abroad, which makes it hard to challenge their terms.

So, it’s important to realize that your family might be violating the terms of service if they log in to your accounts, unless they are registered legacy contacts.

There is a great deal of uncertainty around succession law as it relates to online assets like photos, emails and blog posts — yet these may be the things your family would treasure most.

Ideally, your estate plan should contain a statement about what you would like to have happen to these accounts when you die. Do you prefer everything be deleted, or would you rather give access to a particular person who could curate the items?

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Kevin Tharpe

With 25 years of experience, Kevin understands how estate planning, special needs planning, and government benefits programs work together. This is a crucial element of a thorough plan. He explains your eligibility for benefits programs and ensures that you do not make costly mistakes that may disqualify you or deplete your assets.

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