The digital afterlife
The world has changed more in the past 10 years than in the previous 500.
It used to be that when mankind stopped wandering and settled down with a desire to own property and things, laws or wars were required to settle disputes.
Property was easy to manage, because it was mostly physical. Land, papers, livestock and personal belongings. Today our music, pictures, books, movies, financial information and medical records are digital, and managing property has become exceedingly complex.
Somewhere along the way fiduciaries were created, people whose job it was to represent the best interests of those who were either dead or incapacitated. Into their hands, the law gave access to property and things that might be stored on that property or in other places.
People began to plan their estates and create orders for their handpicked fiduciaries to carry out upon their death. In this way, property passed from one person to another in a more or less peaceful and orderly fashion.
While most people still have physical properties like homes or cars or businesses, many people have developed digital assets that are increasingly valuable.
Online banking, insurance, forms filled out for the department of motor vehicles, medical records, credit cards and almost every aspect of our lives is digitized today.
We have tens if not hundreds of passwords to access our digital lives. And we have the cloud.
Because the World Wide Web is only 25 years old, we don’t have much of a plan for how to pass along our digital property.
One big difference is that until recently, individuals owned and controlled their physical property, because it was mostly in a physical space where people could go and collect it. In the digital age, for the most part, they still own and control their physical property, but it’s often maintained by a third party like your photos on Facebook or your online bank records or your investment portfolio.
There are three things you need to know about your digital life if you are thinking about how to preserve it should you become incapacitated or die.
The Fiduciary System
The age-old fiduciary system still is strongly in place. If you draw up a will and name a fiduciary to handle your business, the courts of law will honor this.
The problem with fiduciaries is that they can often access your physical property and records without too much trouble, but they might not be able to access your digital property.
This is because each state has different laws governing digital assets, if they have laws at all, and companies like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter and many others like banks or even government agencies have very few policies detailing how loved ones or even fiduciaries can get access to a deceased or incapacitated person’s account. And with no overarching law to govern them, it’s kind of like the wild west out there.
That was until the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act was created last summer.
“What the new law does is it extends the old law of fiduciary access to allow people to manage someone else's property and it extends it to digital assets which are now online,” Ben Orzeske, legislative council for the Uniform Law Commission said.
If you put in your will how you would like your digital assets handled upon your death or incapacitation, UFADDA, as the law has come to be called, should help insure that your digital assets become accessible to your fiduciary.
This is if you live in Delaware, of course.
For now, it’s the first and only state to have adopted UFADDA.
Because the uniform legislation was created and approved this summer and most legislative sessions in most states won’t begin again until January of 2015, the law hasn’t had a chance to circulate widely.
Legal experts say that the most effective way to handle your digital assets is to include them in your will, so even without UFADDA firmly in place in all 50 states, you’re more likely to secure your digital belongings if you include information about them in a will.
Digital Death Services
Like digital undertakers, a new type of service is emerging as people using social media pass away. As of 2012, there were upwards of 30 million accounts of dead people on Facebook alone. And a recent study estimates our digital assets average about $34,000 in value, which creates the impetus for entrepreneurs to provide the kind of help that can make it easy to manage your digital estate upon your passing or incapacitation.
Companies like Afternote, b-eMortal and Dead Man’s Switch offer users a way to do everything from distribute their digital assets to providing access by sending emails posthumously. This is a pretty comprehensive list of digital death services, but none of them are the complete package, and few will provide the kind of peace of mind that legally documenting your digital assets in a will could provide.
The simplest solution to the problem of what happens to your digital life once you die is to just give someone you trust access to your passwords.
“Estate planning experts say the most important thing you can do, if you don’t have a will, is just to have a list of your accounts and your usernames and passwords in some secure place, whether that be online or offline or wherever and to let someone that you trust know about it.” Maeve Duggan, a research analyst with Pew Research Center, said.
Password management systems can be a useful way keep your digital assets protected while at the same time creating the peace of mind in knowing that someone other than you, whom you trust, can access your information should something happen to you.
Some of the best password management systems are 1Password, Keeper, RoboForm, MSecure, Dashlane, PasswordBox and LastPass. There are many others with too many features to mention, but they offer a good way to control where you digital assets go if you don’t want to provide those instructions in a will.
Whatever way you choose to preserve your digital assets for those who come after you, you might want to consider your priorities.
“I kind of see online assets as falling into two general categories,” Maeve Duggan said. “The first has a really practical or financial value. Stuff like your online bank accounts, any medical records, insurance documents, loans. The second is the sentimental, nostalgic kinds of things. Photos, music, certain emails. But I will say that it depends on which you think is more important to prioritize.”