Table of Contents
- Why should you create a digital estate plan?
- What Accounts and Devices to Include in a Digital Estate Plan
- How Do You Gather, Manage, and Pass On Digital Estate Information?
- Appointing Someone to Act on Your Behalf
- Updating Your Digital Estate Information
Your digital estate refers to intangible online assets, including data, that you may own or control. That includes websites and blogs, social media profiles, and intellectual property. It also includes log-in credentials and passwords for digital accounts, digital subscriptions, online services, and/or apps.
Many people don’t realize the need for digital estate planning. Just as you plan for your physical estate via wills, trusts, and other legal documents, you can plan for your digital estate.
Why should you create a digital estate plan?
Without a digital estate plan, your digital assets may go completely unnoticed. If you don’t take steps to document your digital estate for family, there’s really no way loved ones can ever know the extent of your online footprint.
The consequences of not creating a digital estate plan can range from inconvenience and frustration to loss of valuable assets.
Here are just some ways a digital estate plan might help your family after you’re gone.
- Provide access to social media for closure purposes. Without an estate plan that provides family with login credentials and permissions, your social media accounts may remain intact as is. That leaves your name and online identity open to fraud activity. This can also cause unnecessary grief to loved ones, who continue to see interactions related to your account display in news feeds.
- Ensure someone can end digital services in a timely manner. If no one knows about your Netflix account, the estate may continue to be auto charged for the service.
- Ensure easy access to financial and other valuable accounts. Even if your online banking accounts are listed in a will, accessing them can be difficult for loved ones or estate administrators if you don’t leave behind the usernames and passwords.
- Collecting documents and photos. Some digital devices could remain locked to your loved ones if you don’t leave the password information, which means they could lose out on memories and other information stored on your personal computer, tablet, or smartphone.
- Protecting your estate against fraud. Many online accounts include personal information, and some even include your banking or credit card information. If these accounts were to be left alone, unused for years, that leaves them vulnerable to hackers who could steal your identity and use them even after you’re gone.
What Accounts and Devices to Include in a Digital Estate Plan
Good estate planning is detailed and thorough. When you’re creating a will, you may work with a professional estate lawyer to ensure all of your assets and heirs are properly accounted for. The same is true when you’re planning for your digital estate.
Here’s a comprehensive list of all the items and digital assets you may want to account for in such a plan.
Social media accounts
Leaving loved ones a list of your social media accounts, along with usernames and passwords, is a great idea. You can leave specific instructions on how you want those accounts handled, or you can leave the matter up to your next of kin.
Some people want all their social media accounts deleted or closed upon their death; others want family members to keep the accounts open so loved ones can continue to see memories and pictures that were shared in the past. You might also want someone to post memorial information on social media. In this modern age, family members don’t always know how to get in touch with all of a loved one’s friends and acquaintances.
Facebook offers a memorialized account option that allows a family member to manage the account and keep it open for this purpose with limited interaction capabilities. Instagram also offers memorialized accounts.
When listing social media accounts in your digital estate plan, consider all of the following platforms and how you want your accounts handled.
- Any other social profile you may own
Around 31 percent of individuals have three or four email addresses, and some people have even more. Even if you have just one active email account, it’s important to leave information about it for your loved ones or estate executor.
Today, email acts as a primary mode of communication for many people. You might receive financial statements, bills, and business information via email instead of regular mail, and those are things your executor needs access to for efficient adjudication of your estate.
When recording your email accounts, leave information about:
- Where you have email accounts
- What your email username and passwords are
- How you typically accessed your accounts — is there an app on your smartphone, did you use Outlook, or did you log in via a web interface?
- Any username and passwords required to get to those programs (such as the PIN number for your phone or computer)
- Any subscriptions you may receive via email, such as e-newsletters
Some of the more popular email providers today include Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo, but you might also have email through your internet service provider or other webmail providers.
Financial/bank account passwords
Online banking adds another layer to both digital and regular estate planning. Leaving information about your financial accounts behind, including passwords, makes it easier for your executor or loved ones to see what’s going on with financial accounts and manage your assets during estate administration. It’s especially important for your next of kin or estate executor to have access to accounts where automatic debits or credits may be processed; they can take action to stop overdrafts and other expensive transactions from piling up.
In some cases, online passwords are the only way executors will have access to such information, as banks such as ING, State Farm, and Orange offer online-only financial accounts.
When including financial accounts and passwords in your estate plan, consider including:
- Checking and savings accounts
- Investment accounts
- Insurance accounts
- Credit card accounts
- Online money management accounts such as PayPal, Stripe, Venmo, or Bill.com
- Bill payment apps or services
- Accounts which are set to auto-pay
Online shopping sites
Retail sites are often overlooked even when individuals create digital estate plans, and loved ones left trying to cobble together digital accounts without a plan may have no way of knowing where you have accounts. Listing online shopping sites and login information lets your estate executor:
- Ensure your estate receives any credits or purchases that may still be outstanding
- Know if any payments to retailers are outstanding
- Remove your financial information from online accounts where it might be saved to proactively prevent fraud risks
Some examples of online shopping sites where you may have stored your personal or financial information can include:
- Major retailers with online stores, such as Walmart, Macy’s, or Kohl’s
- Specialty retailers online such as Zulily or Shutterfly
Websites you own
If you created online content or own websites or domain names, they may be valuable either monetarily or emotionally for your family members. Leaving a list of these assets lets your family:
- Find your creations online, which can provide comfort for them during a time of grief
- Interact with any audience you may have built, even if it’s only to notify your fans or followers of your passing
- Continue with any creative legacy you may have built, such as running an online business or maintaining a blog
- Sell online assets such as websites or domain names for the benefit of the estate
When listing websites and online properties, consider including:
- Blogger, WordPress, or other free blogging sites you created content on
- Revenue-sharing profiles on sites such as HubPages
- Websites you created
- Any domains your still own, even if you haven’t created a site for them
Listing digital subscriptions and passwords allows your next of kin to cancel any subscriptions that may no longer be necessary, potentially saving the estate a lot of money.
A Netflix account may only cost around $10, but most people have a handful of active digital subscriptions that may cost between $1 and $20 each month. Without a list of these accounts, it could take months for your estate executor to figure out what subscriptions are active and how to close them. If it takes just six months and you have $100 in subscriptions, that’s $600.
Here are some types of subscriptions you might want to include in your digital estate plan.
- Television and movie streaming accounts, including Netflix, Hulu, Sling, and network-specific accounts (such as streaming services from CBS or HBO)
- Music streaming accounts, including Spotify or Pandora
- App subscriptions, including games, productivity apps, or any other product you pay for monthly through an app store
- Software subscriptions, including Microsoft 365
- Membership or user accounts that you pay for, such as Ancestry.com
- Subscription boxes such as Sephora or Birchbox
Digital devices you own, such as smartphones and computers, automatically become part of your estate. However, your family members or estate executor can’t do anything with a device with strong encryption. They may be able to hire someone to hack into a computer, but devices such as iPhones have proven difficult even for government intelligence agencies to access without password information.
If you want loved ones to have access to information or functionality on your digital devices, consider leaving information about:
- All the digital devices you own (smartphones, tablets, computers, and e-readers such as Kindles or Nooks)
- Usernames and passwords associated with each device (such as your Apple ID)
- Any log-in requirements for the device (including PIN numbers or admin passwords for computers)
Intellectual property includes copyrights, trademarks, and patents. These are important to include in your estate planning because they may be currently valuable or valuable in the future. Include this information if you:
- Have invented something and currently hold the patent for it or have applied for a patent that is pending
- Have written and published anything
- Have trademarked logos, images, or phrases
- Hold copyrights or trademarks as part of any personal business venture
Other online accounts linked to your name
Include any other accounts that might be linked to your identity or financial information. That includes online accounts for utilities such as electricity, gas, cellphones, landline phones, cable, and internet.
How do you gather, manage, and pass on digital estate information?
The list we’ve provided above covers a lot of ground, and it can be overwhelming to think about gathering your digital assets all in one place. The World Wide Web became publicly available in 1991, and even if you haven’t been on the internet since the beginning, chances are that you’ve had at least a few years to build a digital footprint. That can make for a lot of online accounts to keep track of.
While some people simply record all this information in a notebook, there are easier ways to manage and pass on your digital estate information.
Companies and apps that assist with digital estate planning
Numerous companies, apps, and services provide ways to manage your digital estate planning online. They range from simple information portals where you can keep all your digital estate data secure to more comprehensive services that help you integrate digital estate matters into overall estate planning.
Here are just two possible options.
- Everplans provides a secure, digital archive of all your estate planning information. You can save legal documents such as wills and trusts, financial information and insurance policies, health and medical information, final wishes and funeral or cremation preferences, and your digital account accounts and passwords.
- You might keep your digital estate information online and share it only with the person you intend to be executor of your estate. You might store all of this information in a single “master digital estate” document or spreadsheet. You could then password-protect that document by placing it in a free cloud storage tool, such as Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, or Google Drive. These services allow you to store information online in document or spreadsheet format and manage permissions yourself.
Password managers let you keep all your usernames and passwords in one place so you don’t have to remember them all. These tools range from simple storage options to dynamic managers that:
- create a variety of unique long-string passwords so you don’t have the same 1 or 2 passwords for multiple websites
- log you in and out of sites or apps automatically when you’re on a specific device
You can share password managers with family so they have access to a list of all your online accounts; loved ones might also be able to log in to accounts automatically on your computer or smartphone if you have a dynamic password manager enabled.
Password managers are beneficial because they simplify the digital credential process. You don’t have to keep track of as many passwords. However, they can be a security risk. If anyone hacks into or otherwise gains access to the data, they now have all of your passwords.
A list of potential password management tools is provided below for your information. Neptune Society doesn’t endorse or recommend software products of any type, and this article is only meant to be informative. Before you decide on a password manager, read customer reviews, look for appropriate security certifications, and speak with an information security professional to answer any questions or concerns you may have.
Potential password management tools include:
You can also work with your estate lawyer to integrate digital assets into more traditional estate documents. Some digital assets, such as intellectual property, should be included in your will and might even be held in a trust. You can also include instructions for accessing digital asset lists online or in a secure location in your will.
You can purchase kits and templates that let you create wills or power of attorney documents. If you go the do-it-yourself route, look for templates that address digital assets or provide a checklist for creating your own digital asset documents.
Most experts don’t recommend DIY estate planning, particularly if you have more than a couple of assets to pass on. And since both digital assets and estate law can get complex quickly, it’s often a good idea to consult with an attorney regarding estate matters. An estate planning professional can provide even more information on how you can integrate digital concerns into your planning process.
Appointing someone to act on your behalf
You do need to appoint someone to act on your behalf with regard to digital estate matters. Usually, that would be the executor of your estate.
Choose someone who:
- You trust to follow your wishes
- Is able to deal with complex information and decision-making
- Is likely to work well with professionals (such as lawyers or accountants) and other family members
- Has the time to commit to administering your estate
- Is willing to administer the estate
Before you appoint someone legally as your estate executor, talk to them about the role. It can be a big commitment, and you want someone who has thought about it and agreed to it willingly. A willing estate executor is usually much more effective than someone who was surprised with the role during a time when they might be dealing with shock or grief.
You may also want to appoint a “Plan B” loved one who would act on your behalf in the event that the original appointee is unavailable or unable to do so.
Updating your digital estate information
Once you do all the work to gather and save your digital estate information, keep it up to date by revisiting it at least once a year. You might even schedule time to review the information quarterly, since many sites require you to change your password every 90 days.
For more information about preparing for final arrangements or protecting your family in the future, subscribe to our Thinking Ahead email series.
Note: Neptune Society is not affiliated with, and doesn’t endorse or recommend, any products in this article. This is intended as a resource to help families. Be sure to speak with a professional regarding digital security or digital estate planning.