Nowadays, estate planning must necessarily include a digital estate plan too. It is estimated that 60% of people will die without a will or any type of estate plan.[i] Additionally, most people will end up taking their passwords and usernames to their grave. While this might be acceptable if the person was a spy and keeping state secrets safe, it is a nightmare scenario for the next of kin, partner, spouse, or personal representative trying to windup and close your estate so that they can take care of your heirs and beneficiaries.
Keep in mind, once you are gone you cannot text them to tell them that the list is in a file on a “c” drive of your laptop or the list is written down a piece of paper in the junk drawer by the Keurig.
Most people nowadays have several online accounts, a computer or two, a smart phone or two, a few email accounts, several social media accounts, and a Disney+ or HULU or Netflix or Amazon account. People may also have tablets, smart refrigerators, thermostats, internet routers, or smart cars. Make no mistake, all these technological advances are fantastic and make our lives more enjoyable for the most part. It truly is the World of Tomorrow, but there is a downside.
The downside is this – – all these accounts also come with digital profiles, which include usernames, passwords, secret questions, two-step authentication, and other biometric security features to keep the bad guys out. Well, what happens if you die? How does anyone, including the good guys, get access to these accounts to close up your business or estate? Thus, the digital estate plan was born. And if you have not had the forethought to plan ahead, your estate could end up in a pickle trying to unwind a series of missing usernames and passwords.
Elsie Moreau writes in What to Do With Someone’s Online Accounts After They Die, “Social networking profiles represent a part of our lives. When a person passes away, families must often deal with the grim task of figuring out what to do with all their social profiles. If a deceased user kept their login and password credentials completely private, then getting into any of their social networking accounts to obtain information or delete the account can be a tricky process. When ignored, these online accounts tend to appear active well after the user’s death.”[ii]
It is one thing for any account to simply go dormant or inactive. It is entirely another thing for a recurring charge to continue to debit from an account long after the decedent is gone. In many instances, the personal representative has no idea that there is a random SiriusXM radio account or a local newspaper still debiting from an account. Or the reverse, the personal representative needs to change the account the mortgage payment is drawn from but cannot access the actual account because they do not know the username, password, and email account linked to the mortgage account. Insane.
There is a simple solution. Everyone should create a digital estate plan. If you were to pass today, would your significant other, business partner, personal representative, or estate attorney know how to access your smart phone, laptop or desktop computer, tablet, thermostat, smart refrigerator, email accounts, social media accounts, bank accounts, business accounts, subscriptions (like Microsoft 365, Adobe, Netflix, Amazon Prime …etc.), and other personal online accounts (like mortgage, water, gas, electric, cable, internet …etc.) Everything is online today and without the correct username and password, your estate may be stuck in neutral as the personal representative is stuck weeding through unnecessary red tape. And while all of this is occurring, your heirs and beneficiaries may be stuck waiting as well.
For instance, there is a growing body of work out explaining how to close a Gmail account after the user passes or how to retrieve certain information and data from a decedent’s smart phone.[iii] These resources cover a wide range of topics from how to close a Gmail account after someone has passed to how to retrieve data from a decedent’s smart phone. None of this was necessary twenty or twenty-five years ago when the Motorola flip-phone was all the rage and cutting edge, but it is now.
The digital estate plan should be updated at least once a year with as many account types, usernames, passwords, and email account associated with that account. The list should be as exhaustive and comprehensive as possible. While it might be unrealistic to keep the list updated monthly, a yearly review should be to save your estate any headaches down the road. “A stitch in time saves nine.”[iv]
At the very least, the personal representative should have access to the following information upon your death:
- Smart phone with any PIN information to access the phone.
- All computers or tablets used to access your accounts.
- All username and passwords for your email accounts.
The reason for these two at the very least is this – if the personal representative can access your phone, then he or she can receive text messages from various companies or providers when they access your accounts if the account requires a 2-step authentication. Additionally, the email account is necessary because many companies send links to the various email accounts if the personal representative must recover or change a lost password.
A digital estate plan accounts for electronic identity by creating a document that outlines all the above information for your spouse, partner, personal representative, and/or attorney. Some version of the digital estate plan should be kept with your current will and traditional estate plan. This information is beyond invaluable because when you are gone (or incapacitated for that matter), no one can call you to ask, “hey, what’s the password to (insert account type)?”
Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #thetrialdog
If you have estate planning questions about a digital estate plan or any estate planning question, then please do not hesitate to contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss the matter.
The purpose of this blog is purely education/information and should not be viewed as creating any attorney-client privilege between the reader and author.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, then please feel free to leave me a comment below and thank you reading this blog article. You can also check out the author at his profile at AVVO.com (Candela)
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[i] Ashar, Linda C. Esquire. The Complete Guide to Planning Your Estate in Florida. Atlantic Publishing Group, Inc. 2001.