Ask the Expert: What Will Happen to my Virtual Belongings Should the Unthinkable Happen?

Q. I am pretty technologically savvy and I have photos of my grandchildren on Picasa, my own Google blog, documents saved on Google Docs, and a Facebook account. Is there a way to plan for what will happen to my online documents and virtual belongings if I become incapacitated or pass away?

A. Deciding what happens to your online data is easy-to-do and will bring peace of mind to you and your loved ones, should you become incapacitated or pass away. Google and Facebook have made it a simple process by launching tools that let you decide what happens with your accounts should the unthinkable happen.

Should something happen to you, you may want your photos, emails, and documents to be shared with a trusted friend or family member, or you might want your account to be deleted entirely. Whatever the reason, you can decide what happens after your account becomes inactive for a certain period of time (3 months- a year) by using the Google “Inactive Account Manager” tool to manage your “digital afterlife”. By changing your settings, you can direct Google to pass on data from online venues such as Google Drive, Gmail, Picasa, YouTube, or social network Google+ to particular people or be deleted after being dormant for too long.

The feature was added as people increasingly trust their data and memories to online social networks, data storage facilities, and other services hosted in the Internet “cloud.” Google says planning for your “digital afterlife” is important to the people we leave behind and it helps protect a person’s privacy and security. To configure your settings on Google click here.

For your Facebook account, the family of a deceased loved one can “memorialize” the account to protect your privacy. Here are some of the key features of memorialized accounts:

  • No one can log into a memorialized account and no new friends can be accepted;
  • Depending on the privacy settings of the deceased person’s account, friends can share memories on the memorialized timeline;
  • Anyone can send private messages to the deceased person;
  • Content the deceased person shared (ex: photos, posts) remains on Facebook and is visible to the audience it was shared with;
  • Memorialized timelines don’t appear in People You May Know and other suggestions.

Creating a timeline in remembrance of an already deceased person is not allowed. Facebook encourages users to create a Page to memorialize an account. Learn how to request the memorialization of a deceased person’s account.

Laws in the United States and elsewhere are vague on the fate of digital rights to online accounts after death, leading to complications for survivors who want access to the online services of the deceased. In one case that drew considerable attention, the family of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq went to court in 2005 after being blocked from getting access to his Yahoo email account, with the company arguing that it could not release “private” information and that the account was “non-transferable” under terms of service.

Another way to protect digital accounts would be specifying digital assets in your estate planning documents and specifically giving control over these digital assets to your executor or trustee, who could then take over upon your death.  An easier way is to store all of your digital user names and passwords in a secure password safe, such as keepass or lastpass and give your executor/trustee the password and location of the password safe or the means to locate your master password, such as by writing down your master password and putting it in an envelope in your safe deposit box.

Now that you know how you can plan for your online documents and virtual belongings, do you have a plan in place for what will happen to you if you become incapacitated? Every adult over the age of 18 should have an Incapacity Plan that includes a Financial Power of Attorney, an Advance Medical Directive, and an Advance Care Plan. If you don’t have an Incapacity Plan in place, now is the time to get started.  Call us today at 703-691-1888 to set up an appointment for a no-cost consultation.

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