Death and our Digital World

  • By:Winer Bennett

My head spins when I consider all of the profiles and accounts I have online.  Chances are you are like me and have accounts with many of the following social networks or online services:  Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Snapfish, Amazon, iTunes, iCloud, Gmail.  In addition, an increasing number of people manage important accounts and services online.  Consider how many different user names and passwords you have in order to access online bank accounts, retirement and investment accounts, mortgage loans and credit cards.  Would your family have adequate information about your online accounts and profiles if you suddenly died?

When I ask myself this question, the first thing that comes to mind is that I no longer have paper account statements.  I typically view statements online.  If something happened to my wife and me, how would our families even know that we have such accounts?  Family members might have to resort to searching hard drives and web browser histories (that could be embarrassing!) for clues about our financial assets.  As you might imagine, such a process would great exacerbate an already overwhelming situation for our loved ones.

Do your family a favor.  Take some time to gather your important financial information, including online usernames and passwords.  Consolidate this information into one document and update it periodically.  Keep the document somewhere secure and let your family know where they may find it in the event of your death.  Be sure to include in the document essential information about life insurance, retirement accounts, bank and investment accounts, safety deposit boxes, mortgage(s) and credit cards.  Provide contact information for your attorney, accountant, insurance agent and financial advisor. Finally, provide the location of your estate planning documents and burial instructions.

The ability of your family to manage or terminate your social network profiles at death depends upon each network’s terms of service.  This is a relatively new challenge for fiduciaries of a deceased person’s estate, and a bill was recently introduced in the New Hampshire legislature (HB 116) to give fiduciaries the statutory authority to control, continue or terminate a deceased person’s account with a social networking site or email service.  The bill was subsequently tabled, but legislators and courts will continue to grapple with this topic which raises important issues of access and privacy. 

By:  Brian C. Kelly

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Posted in: Estate Planning