Four Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Digital Estate
While the internet makes our lives more convenient, it also adds new complications. For example, what happens to all our online data and assets if we become disabled or die?
Whether or not we spend half our lives responding to devices, we all transact a lot of our daily business online -- buying items on Amazon, paying our bills through online bank programs, accumulating and using airline miles, reallocating our investments, saving photos, listening to music, watching movies, or planning trips. And that's not even mentioning dating sites or social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn.
So, what happens to all these connections and information if you become disabled or die? Whom do you want to have access, and to which sites? For instance, although you may want your children to be able to access your financial accounts, do you want them scrutinizing your dating site?
The following are four actions you can take to make sure your digital estate is not lost or falls into the wrong hands:
Share your passwords. Make sure that someone you trust, presumably the same person or people you appoint on your durable power of attorney and as personal representative of your estate, knows your passwords or how to find them. This can get complicated, since our passwords keep changing as sites require new passwords or have different requirements for password configurations. There are a few possible solutions to this challenge: (1) Keep a written list of your usernames, PIN numbers, and passwords and let your future agent know where it can be found. This has the benefit of being easy and impossible to hack, but it also means that anyone may be able to find the list. (2) Use a few secure passwords on all accounts that you can memorize and provide to your agent. (3) Use a service such as LastPass that stores all of your passwords. All you need to do is provide your agent with access to this one account. (Of course, use a different password for any sites you don't want to share.)
Add digital provisions to your estate planning documents. Make sure your durable power of attorney and will specifically authorize your agent and personal representative to access your digital accounts. This may or may not help since your access is governed by contracts with the online companies — those agreements we all check off without reading — which may or may not permit access to others. Strictly speaking, the sharing of passwords probably violates most of these agreements. However, there is an argument to be made that authorizing access in our estate planning documents gives our agents the legal authority to act for us and to use our usernames and passwords.
Check if the online company has provisions for substitute access. Many online companies have their own systems for providing limited access to others in the event of our incapacity or death. See what they say and whether it's possible to name someone to have access when and if necessary. Google, for instance, allows you to name an Inactive Account Manager.
Save elsewhere. If you have anything saved online that's really important to you, such as photographs, videos, or certain papers and documents, save it somewhere else as well. Print out important papers. Save everything to your computer (making sure you share your password) and to a USB drive. In fact, you should copy to more than one USB drive to share with whomever you deem appropriate.
If you take these steps, you and your family will be at much less risk of losing access to and control of your online life and property. Since things keep changing, it's worth reviewing all of these steps on an annual basis.