Regardless of age, our lives are integrated with digital technology. Whether you use a smart phone and text, or maintain multiple email and social media accounts; conduct online banking, shopping or pay bills—we are connected. Have you ever thought about the status of those accounts if you were to become seriously injured or to suddenly die? Would your family members know how to access these accounts and take over managing your affairs or estate?
The dilemma isn’t new. “In 2004 Yahoo refused to give the parents of Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth, a fallen Marine and Michigan native access to their son's email account. They wanted to see the last words he had written. Yahoo and other online account providers argue that releasing content in an online account to anyone violates privacy policies and federal law. LCpl Ellsworth's parents sued and won; the probate court issued an order requiring Yahoo to release his emails,” Pam said.
Despite this victory, the court order does not have a binding effect for other families. Michigan law has yet to catch up with the reality of today's digital society. Legislation has been introduced in Michigan that would authorize the personal representative of an estate to access the decedent's email, social network and other accounts. It has not been acted on since it was introduced in early 2015.
Our active online lives and the lack of law governing management of digital assets upon death or incapacitation mean that individuals need to be proactive and plan for the future. Consider these digital asset management ideas.
- Check whether your online account provider offers any after life services. For example, Google offers Inactive Account Manager, a service that allows a user to designate an heir to control account data after Google determines the account is inactive.
- Compile a list of your digital assets, e.g., online accounts, pictures and videos. Write down the location, username and password for each asset. Keep the list in a secure place, perhaps with an online password manager or even in your safety deposit box.
- Create an estate plan with your attorney that addresses digital asset management. Some topics to discuss are: 1) what should happen with each asset upon death; 2) who should be able to access to your digital assets; and 3) what language regarding digital asset management should be added to your estate plan.
- Carry out your plan for digital asset management and update as needed. It may be wise to turn your estate plan into a digital asset (save as a PDF) and store the documents on the cloud through free services like DropBox or Google Drive.