Estate Planning for your digital/online accounts

By Catherine Haug, May 22, 2015

The information in this post is paraphrased from an article in the AARP Magazine, February-March 2014 issue: Online, Forever After, by Carrie Arnold.

Have you ever wondered what would happen with all the things you have online:  financial data, social media posts, photos, music, books, etc. purchased from iTunes and other online sources, passwords, etc.? I found this AARP article quite enlightening about topics I’d not thought of before.

The most important thing is to start planning now, before the unexpected happens.

Online accounts:

Take an inventory of your bank and investment accounts for which you have online access, and the information required to log in (user ID, password, secret questions, etc.). Record the login information in a notepad, or in a secure document on your computer. Regarding the latter option, don’t just put the info in a word doc; any hacker can get into that. DO NOT put login information in your will. Be sure to tell a relative or trusted friend where you hide the notepad, or where you filed the digital document.

If you regularly pay any bills online, such as utilities, PayPal, VISA, etc., record that login information as well.

If you use online services to check on those accounts (e.g., Yahoo!,, specify your beneficiaries directly on the websites of the financial institutions.

If you do not receive paper copies of your statements, its a good idea to download online statements monthly or at least quarterly, and file them. “Anything on your personal computer will become part of the estate, and the estate will access the information, and they will distribute the information that is on [your computer’. What they can’t do is jump through the computer and to your online accounts.”

Email Accounts, blogs, etc.:

Get a copy of the email account’s or web-hosting account’s terms of service (TOS). Most likely you don’t have this, but you can contact your the provider of your email account to get a copy. Like most things of this sort, it will be full of legalese; if you don’t understand it, get help. The TOS contains important information about what happens to your account when you die. Note that some providers consider your account terminated upon your death.

Normally the email provider does not give anyone but you access to your email without a court order or consent from you. If you want your heirs to be able to access your email after you’re gone, draft a statement to that effect. This can be added to your will.

Social Media Accounts:

Again, get a copy of the TOS for these accounts. New features are added to these services from time to time; for example, in 2009, Facebook added a feature that allows friends and family members to share memories of a deceased loved one on his or her Timeline. This service can be activated once the site receives proof of that person’s death, and deactivated at a family member’s request.

Music, e-books, photos and more:

When you download a song, book or movie, etc. from a service like iTunes, you don’t actually own the item. Rather, you own a license to use the download during your lifetime. You may not have the right to pass it on to someone else upon your death. Again, get a copy of the TOS for the service to determine your rights.

When you import songs, movies from a CD, DVD or other recorded device to your iTunes or other software, you have more control over these. However, consult the TOS to be sure.

Photo-sharing services are very handy when you’re alive, but after your demise, your heirs may not have access to them. Its a good idea to download your favorites and save a copy to your hard drive or to a CD/DVD or similar.

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