Planning for Your Digital AfterlifePosted by Medicare Made Clear
Many of us spend a good part of our days online. We email our grandkids, catch up with old friends on social media, pay bills—even watch movies. According to a report from Microsoft, the typical web user now has 25 different online accounts.
But what happens when we die? Though it’s hard to think about, what happens if we don’t think about it may be worse. The legal status of our “digital assets” is still being worked through in the court system. For now, the fate of online property is uncertain. Unless you make specific plans for your digital assets—just like you should your physical assets—they could be mismanaged, or disappear altogether.
Steps to Protect
Here are some ideas on how to protect your digital afterlife.
1. Make a complete inventory of your online accounts. Write down the names and URLs for all websites that you visit every day, month or year that require you to login. Then write down your user name and password for each of those sites.
Make sure to keep this private information secure. Otherwise, you could fall victim to an identity thief, or another online criminal. Don’t include it in the will, since that’s a public document. While it may be simplest to record this information on paper, consider taking a look at some online apps that can make it easier. One of them, PasswordBox, allows you to designate a digital heir, who can access the information after you die.
2. Back up your financial data. The information that’s most crucial to your heirs may be the hardest for them to access. If you can, make sure to let your financial institutions know who your beneficiaries are. Often, you can provide that information via their website. You also may want to get in the habit of downloading or printing out your account statements every month, or quarter. That way, you’ve got a hard copy, which can provide information if your online accounts prove difficult to access.
3. Check out your email and social media accounts. Remember all that legal fine print you had to agree to before opening an email or social media account? Yes, lots of us sign off without actually reading it. That fine print is your online service provider’s Terms of Service, or TOS. It’s time to read the TOS for your various accounts now, since they likely contain information about what happens to your accounts when you die.
Service providers vary in their TOS with regards to an account holder’s death. Some email providers, like Yahoo!, consider your account terminated upon your death. But Google recently allowed account holders to name an “Inactive Account Manager” and name what you want to happen to your Gmail account and other Google data when you pass. And social media network Facebook allows a deceased account holder’s page to become a memorial site on which family and friends can share memories of their loved one.
4. Consider your music and e-books. When you buy a paperback book, or a music CD, you own those items as your personal property. However, when you download music from iTunes, or buy an e-book for your e-reader (like a Kindle), you don’t actually own the item. Instead, you’re buying a license to use the download during your lifetime. So you may not be able to transfer the rights to those materials to your heirs. As with your email and social media, make sure to read the TOS of the site from which you purchased the digital media to find out what’s allowed.
Planning as an Act of Love
Your digital assets have sentimental, historical and financial value. And just as planning for how to distribute your physical assets after you’re gone is an act of love for the people you’ll leave behind, so is planning for the fate of your digital assets.
Because of the uncertain legal status of digital assets, you may want to consult a lawyer to see what else might be needed to make sure your assets are protected. Keep in mind that the laws governing online property differ based on the state in which you live, and will no doubt keep evolving over time.
For more information, explore MedicareMadeClear.com or contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048.
Medicare Made Clear Blog: Review past articles on end-of-life matters.
Pew Research Center: Information on your digital afterlife from this nonpartisan “fact tank” that reports on issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.