Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What happens to your electronic accounts when you die?

Will you be on YouTube long after you are gone?  Killing off an electronic account might be harder than killing a zombie.

Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and dozens of sites upload millions of photographs and videos every day.  Your grandmother might have kept her memories in photo albums and keep-sake boxes, but today you often need a user name and password to access your family's artifacts.  Digital property- that is, stuff in cyberspace- can be precious.

When I look at LinkedIn, I see under "People You May Know" the name of a family friend who died a couple of years ago.  In the "free" digital world, her account, like my Yahoo email, will never end unless somebody knows how to close it.  I suspect her widower is too distraught to stare at the digital artifacts of the fine woman who was his wife.

Digital account creators do not make it easy to cancel an account because of: (a) privacy laws, (b) security concerns, and (c) the fact that their share prices are tied to the number of subscribers.  If you have more than a few accounts, just managing the user names and passwords is a job in itself.

For these reasons, part of estate planning today can be to make arrangements to end or transfer your digital accounts.  The means vary according to the type of digital account, the market value, if any, of your interest, the risks of loss, and how such directives can be coordinated with other estate planning.  It is possible that a person might become so concerned about the future of his digital accounts that he executes a power of attorney, creates a trust, and makes specific provisions in his will.  Anyone thinking so meticulously should be more concerned about protecting his other assets through a comprehensive estate plan.  Such a plan often includes care for loved ones, division of property, appointments of executors and trustees where needed, and the granting of powers of attorney where needed.  Estate planning varies according to state law and should involve consultation with an experienced attorney.

As important as your digital accounts might be to you, your desire to protect them would benefit to your family more if you developed a comprehensive estate plan.  The impetus to begin or review your estate plan might begin with worries about electronic accounts or pets, but there are bigger stakes.

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