I’ve written previously on the importance of planning beyond one’s own death. Simple planning now can prevent unnecessary headaches after you’ve passed. This is typically accomplished by preparing a will and/or obtaining life insurance. But with the Internet and cloud computing increasingly dominating our daily lives, more adults are taking their lives online, often through social networking, online gaming, or blogging. Consumers shop, pay bills, and bank online. Important accounts, documents, files and photos are now often managed exclusively online, almost always behind usernames and passwords.
Do you know what would happen to your blog if you die? What happens to the passwords and content of your multiple email accounts? Who, if anyone, would you want to control your Twitter, Facebook or World of Warcraft account? Think about these questions now and speak to an attorney who can help you plan your digital estate.
Here are a few general guidelines:
As a general rule, you own your email and electronic correspondence and you can leave this to whomever you choose in your will. However, if your family or executors don’t know your email passwords, they may have trouble retrieving it. Gmail will give access to email contents upon proof of death and proof of relationship.
Facebook and Social Networking Accounts
Facebook and other social networking accounts are slightly different than email accounts as the information on your profile isn’t as private as your emails – your profile is accessible and viewable by anyone whom you’ve granted access. Your profile also appears as a friend of countless others, and will continue to appear until the account is either closed or your friends delete you.
Facebook allows for the “memorialization” of accounts, where the accounts remain open as a tribute. There’s even a form you can use to report a user who has died. However, Facebook won’t release login information, so the account can’t be accessed, changed or updated.
Blogs and Online Content
An additional consideration for managing your digital estate arises for those of us who run blogs. Much like social networking and email accounts, online service providers such as WordPress are reluctant to release login details, even to an executor. If your blog is hosted on your own server or through a third-party hosting service, the task of accessing the site is further complicated and in some cases may be close to impossible.
If you’ve got a blog, you’ve also got intellectual property including copyright to your writings and any trademarks associated with your site. You may also have photographs, music, and other works that are published and maintained online. Copyright generally lasts for 70 years after the death of the author, so there’s a significant tail period of copyright protection that vests in your estate and, just like any other form of property, intellectual property can be bequeathed to a specific individual in your will. If the will does not specify who gets your intellectual property, the standard rules of distribution apply.
Users spend a great deal time of time creating and managing identities in online worlds like World of Warcraft or Destiny. But what will happen to these accounts upon your death? World of Warcraft will transfer ownership of an account to an immediate family member upon proof of death, and the community has even been known to host virtual funerals.
As with other estate planning stories, the moral is to plan ahead. Here are your action items for planning the disposition of your digital information upon your death:
- Select a “digital” executor, someone who you trust to carry out your wishes with respect to your online information
- Tell your executor what you want done and give him or her the information needed to carry out your wishes.
- Prepare a list of your email and social networking accounts along with your login data and brief details on how to access the accounts.
- Update your will to include specific provisions for who will take ownership of your intellectual property and any data that you leave behind.