Technology needs to be part of your Estate Planning. I don’t mean the do-it-yourself tools available on the web to write a will or trust. I mean the technology you use regularly must be incorporated into your estate planning.
The privacy policies and practices at most technology providers you deal with make it difficult for your heirs to use, transfer, or close your online activities ? or even know about them. Your estate planning must include your e-mail, online commerce, any social networks you joined, and any other online activities.
The key issue for all your online activities is there is no paper trail unless you create one. Unless you tell them, your executor and heirs have no way of knowing about your e-mail accounts, electronic banking and brokerage accounts, online social networks, blogs, and more.
The opposite problem also is possible when you don’t plan. Some companies will give the passwords or other access information to anyone who produces a death certificate and proof of a family relationship. You may want to avoid that by giving all the access details to people you select.
Some of you make limited or no use of technology and don’t have to worry about this. For the rest of us, there are steps to consider for each type of account.
E-mail. Major e-mail providers (Google, Yahoo, etc.) will give survivors passwords and other information about your e-mail accounts only with proper proof. Each firm has its own standard of proof. Some will divulge information only under a court order. Many providers require a copy of the death certificate, a power of attorney giving the person authority over the e-mail account, and a copy of an e-mail sent to the survivor from the account and stating the person is to have access to the account. Even all that may not be enough. Some of the companies offering free e-mail accounts drop an account when it is not used for a time, even as short a period as one month. The account may be closed and the past records lost by the time the process to establish access is completed.
Decide who should have access to your e-mail. Make a list of all your active e-mail accounts, the access codes (such as passwords), and the steps to opening e-mails. Have that information in the book or file I always recommend you leave for your executor or heirs. The book has details about all your assets and liabilities. You may want to designate who should have access to particular accounts. Perhaps a family member should have access to a personal e-mail account while the executor has access to a business account or one you give to financial institutions. Or you could direct the executor to handle all the accounts.
E-commerce. Online bank and brokerage accounts, credit cards, and other financial accounts now are common. You also are likely to have online accounts for less significant activities such as library book and video rentals, utility bills, and retailers such as Amazon.com. You may be storing information online through a blog, social networking sites, your own web site, and photo and file-storage or sharing services. You may have accounts with cash balances or something such as points that can be redeemed for cash or goods.
Again, policies to give survivors or executors access to these sites vary. But even more difficult for your executor or survivors is knowing about all the accounts. With some accounts, such as those on social networking sites, you have an interest in what is done with the content. It could be withdrawn and the account closed, preserved as is, or changed to become a memorial. Some of these accounts shift into a passive or memorial status after a period of non-use, but many others stay active indefinitely.
You need to document all the web sites on which you have accounts including their addresses and your access information. When you have a preference for the account other than closing it, specify your intent in your estate planning documents. You could prepare how you want the site to change, just as it is recommended that you prepare an obituary to be submitted to traditional media.
There are firms that will store all your web site information, such as access codes, and distribute that information to selected persons after your death. They have different ways of confirming your passing. For example, you may be sent an e-mail monthly. You have to respond to it within a certain time. Failure to do that triggers an e-mail to the persons you designated to receive the information. These firms charge monthly or annual fees. I think it is cheaper and just as easy to maintain the records yourself and let your executor know where they can be found.
You need to maintain a list of all your online accounts and the access information. In either your will or an informal document to your executor designate your preferences about these accounts. If you don’t organize your online life, you’ll leave a lot more work for your heirs and there’s no telling how long it will take to locate and take care of all the accounts.