Your Digital Life After Death: What Happens to the Digital Assets and Accounts You Leave Behind? by Erin C. Cowling, Associate
Do I want my children to have access to my personal email account after I die? Do I want my Facebook account to be memorialized or shut down? Who should have access to the balance in my online poker account? Do I want my digital "life" to die with me (to the extent it can) or live on?
When drafting wills most people fret over who will have custody of young children and the allocation of financial and physical assets. Very few are turning their minds to their digital life when contemplating their physical deaths. This article will examine why we should care about what happens to our digital assets and accounts after we die, what the law says (if anything), and what steps we can take to protect our digital "lives".
Why Should We Care?
One of the reasons we draft wills and name executors that we trust is to see that our wishes regarding our physical and financial assets are carried out after we die. We should be extending these instructions to our digital assets and accounts as well.
Firstly, there is the sentimental value of digital assets. While a physical photo album can be easily found and passed on to our family, it may be difficult for your family members to find your digital photos or videos that are saved and password protected on your home computer or backed-up online. If you want these digital files to be passed on, it is critical to leave instructions on how to find and access them. The same thoughts extend to your social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Your Facebook page could act as a communal grieving ground for your friends and family. Or it could be a constant reminder of your death every time a friend or family member logs on. Would you want the page maintained or shut down?
Secondly, some digital assets have monetary value as well. Do you have a blog that has sponsored banner ads? This blog could be generating a sizeable income from those ads. Where will this money go? Will the blog continue? Do you "own" a domain name that you pay for annually and if not, will it expire? Also, what about your online poker or other gaming account? Or, if you own a small business and you keep your orders and invoices on your computer that no one else has the password to, how will your business fill those orders once you are gone? Thought should be given to each of these issues when planning your estate.
Digital Assets vs. Accounts
It is important to distinguish between digital "assets" and "accounts" when planning for a digital afterlife. In basic terms, digital assets have been described as: digital photos, Quicken spreadsheets, Word and Excel documents, tweets, your iTunes collection etc.
Digital accounts are not the files themselves but the accounts you use to access those files, such as: email accounts, social network accounts, file sharing accounts, software licenses etc. In other words, access to email accounts and copies of the emails themselves are two different things.
This distinction is important in the estate planning context as it raises the following legal issues: Should an executor have access to an email account and be able to use it to send emails? Or should the executor simply be given copies of all of the emails (if possible)? Or both? Or neither? If executors are provided access to physical mail (snail mail) should they also automatically be granted access to your electronic mail as well?
Right now there are no clear answers.
Unfortunately, the law does not say much. In the United States only five states have created laws governing digital asset management after death. They are Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, Indiana and Connecticut. Nebraska has also proposed a law that is not yet in force.
The Oklahoma, Idaho and proposed Nebraska laws provide that the executor or administrator of an estate shall have the power to access and control or terminate any digital accounts of a deceased person.
The legislation in Indiana, Connecticut and Rhode Island is not as far reaching and does not provide the executor with "control" over the digital accounts of a deceased but just access to, or copies of, the contents of email accounts such as Hotmail or Yahoo. An executor or administrator of an estate must provide the email service providers with: (1) a written request accompanied by a copy of the death certificate and a certified copy of the certificate of appointment as executor or administrator; or (2) an order of the court of probate that by law has jurisdiction of the estate of such deceased person.
So far there is no legislation in Canada that deals with digital assets and accounts after death and there have been no reported cases dealing with this topic. This means there is little assistance in dealing with what rights executors have to deal with these digital assets and accounts.
Terms of Service
Unless there is new legislation or an executor obtains a court order, digital service providers will likely stand behind their terms of service and privacy laws to limit executors' access to online accounts.
In 2005 the family of a deceased American marine named Justin Ellsworth sued Yahoo for copies of his emails and access to his email account. Yahoo stood behind its terms of service and the privacy rights of its users and refused to provide access. Yahoo's terms of service provide that its accounts are non-transferrable and terminate upon death. A court eventually ordered Yahoo to turn over a CD of Ellsworth's emails but did not order access to the account itself.
For Facebook, the terms of service say it can delete a facebook account with a written request from the deceased next of kin or set the page to a memorial page where friends and family can leave and view messages.
For Gmail accounts, Google's terms of service state that they "may be able to provide the Gmail account content to an authorized representative of the deceased user".
Google requires not only that the "authorized representative" of the deceased send a copy of the death certificate and a copy of an entire email the deceased sent to the representative (among other things) but also requires a court order. And even after receiving the requested documents they do not guarantee access to the account.
Hotmail will mail the estate holder a DVD with the decedent's account information after a next of kin provides certain required information, such as a death certificate a proof of next of kinship.
Protecting Your Digital Assets
The main thing you can do to protect your digital assets and accounts is to conduct digital audits before you draft your will and periodically afterwards. Once your digital audit is complete you can leave a detailed list of accounts and passwords and clear instructions of your wishes for your digital life after death. Some estate planners in the U.S. have recommended drafting a "Virtual Asset Instruction Letter" (a VAIL) for a person to leave in his or her safety deposit box which lists all of digital accounts, passwords and instructions for each. You could also leave a sealed envelope with your lawyer or executor or keep track of passwords electronically on your computer or Blackberry or on an online password manager such as PassPack or LastPass. Electronically stored lists can be accessed with only one password (which you can provide to your lawyer or executor) and are easier to update than a sealed list in your safety deposit box. There are also many online service providers who will not only store your passwords but your digital assets as well - for a price. See, for example, SecureSafe and LegacyLocker.
The bottom line is we should be putting just as much thought into our digital assets and accounts as we do into our physical and financial assets when planning our estates. Digital audits and recordkeeping should be a part of all estate planners' checklists.
 Connecticut Public Act No. 05-136: An Act Concerning Access to Decedents' Electronic Mail Accounts; Rhode Island HB5647: Access to Decedents' Electronic Mail Accounts Act; Indiana Code 29-1-13 (SB 0212, 2007): Electronic Documents As Estates Property; Oklahoma HB2800: Control of certain social networking, microblogging or e-mail accounts of the deceased; Idaho SB1044: Control of certain social networking, microblogging or e-mail accounts of the deceased.
 In Re Ellsworth, No. 2005-296, 651-DE, Mich.Prob.Ct.2005).