Online exclusive

Your Digital Estate Plan: 4 Things You Need To Know

Documenting your wishes for online accounts can ease heartache for loved ones.

Digital Estate Planning
Online exclusive

Your Digital Estate Plan: 4 Things You Need To Know

Documenting your wishes for online accounts can ease heartache for loved ones.

One of the more difficult realities of estate planning is recognizing that while you can provide for your family after you’re gone, your presence will be missed. But in fact, thanks to your digital identity, your Facebook page will probably carry on after you’re gone — and so will your email account and a myriad of other online profiles you’ve created over the years. Deciding what to do with your digital assets is a new frontier of estate planning and an increasingly vital component of a successful plan.

According to Joel Schoenmeyer, senior vice president and trust advisor team lead at Northern Trust, here are the four things your digital executor will need to help ensure management of your online afterlife in accordance with your wishes: 

1) A comprehensive list of passwords for your online accounts.

Password management programs, such as 1Password, Dashlane and LastPass, can be helpful for day-to-day internet security, and they’re also beneficial for your estate planning strategy. Acting as a central hub for the many spokes of your digital life, these sites serve as databases where you store your login information for every website and service you use. The programs generate complex, secure passwords for each site and allow you to remember just one password — the one required to open the password management program. This means that with a single password, your executor gains access to the full spectrum of your online life. 

2) Access to your list.

Your executor will need the master password to your password management program. Because this is sensitive and not something you want to share with other people aside from perhaps a spouse, you do not want to leave it in an email or on a Post-it note by your desk. Consider writing the master password down on paper, and placing that paper in a safety deposit box or vault to which the executor will gain access after your death. “That’s a great place to keep it because the master password won’t be changing with any regularity, and in terms of security, it needs to be treated in the same way as a serious estate planning document such as a will,” says Schoenmeyer.

3) The authority to act on your behalf.

Speaking of your estate planning documents, it’s very helpful to identify your digital executor in your will. Logging in to someone else’s online account is a legally murky proposition, and while lawmakers and tech companies are working to create a solution to accommodate digital executors, it’s helpful to give your designee the most formal imprimatur possible — inclusion in your will, along with explicit permission to log in using your passwords and to act on your behalf. In addition, some popular websites have created online tools that allow you to designate a specific person to receive access to your account following your failure to log in over an extended period of time. (Facebook’s tool is known as a Legacy Contact, while Google calls its tool the Inactive Account Manager.) 

4) Knowledge of your wishes.

This is where you choose the fate of your online life, and write it down. Perhaps you’d like your Tweets to live on in perpetuity. Or maybe you want your Instagram profile razed the moment you’re not there to curate it. Another possibility is to request that your executor make one final post on your behalf. Regardless, it’s important to make decisions about how your online accounts should be handled after your death and to convey that to your digital executor. 

“These are important issues to raise,” says Schoenmeyer. “There’s no single right answer to these questions, which means that having the conversation is critical.”

Your internet accounts may end up existing without you, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose control of them. With a little foresight, you can provide clear guidance for the management of your online presence in the manner you intend.