What Happens to My Email when I Die? Estate Planning in the Digital Age

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Estate Planning in the Digital Age

Once upon a time, long before Al Gore invented the Internet, when family and friends were tasked with sorting through the belongings of a deceased person, they often had to spend days combing through dusty attics and rickety trunks to find photographs, diaries, heirlooms, and other assorted knick knacks and treasures. However, in today’s digital era, a deceased person often has assets and personal property that could never be found in an attic or storage trunk because such property exists solely in the digital realm. So what happens to my email when i die? Estate planning in the digital age.

During the estate planning process, taking an inventory of your personal property should not only include your tangible personal property such as real estate or jewelry but also your digital property. Digital property can be defined as any digital material or data owned by an individual including text, photos, audio, and video. It includes data stored on a personal computer or storage device as well as data stored on a remote server (such as email and data files). Some types of digital property can have a monetary value, such as your PayPal account, E*TRADE account, website domain names, and etc.

If you were to die or become incapacitated, what happens to your digital property? Maybe you get e-bills sent to your password protected email account. How will your loved ones be able to access your email in order to make payments? How will your loved ones know how to notify your friends and colleagues of your death if you primarily use your Facebook account instead of a traditional address book to keep track of your contacts? Perhaps your business has a widely known website domain name. If you died, how will your loved ones know to renew your domain name in order to keep the name alive or sell it for a profit?

If you do not devise a safe and secure method for your loved ones to access your digital property in the case of your death or incapacity, you will be placing an undue burden on them and will risk losing all of your digital property, which could have great sentimental or monetary value.

The following is a list of some of the popular Internet Service Companies and how they handle death of an account holder:

  • Yahoo!: Next of kin is not allowed to access the email account of a deceased account owner unless the deceased account owner specifically stated otherwise in his or her will. Next of kin can ask for the account to be closed.
  • Facebook: Facebook has a policy called memorization that applies to the profiles of deceased users. Once the user’s death is confirmed, the user’s profile is frozen in time and sensitive information is removed. Only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in a search.
  • Hotmail/Microsoft: Next of kin can access the email account by proving their identity and providing the account owner’s death certificate. Next of kin should act quickly because an account inactive for 270 days will be deleted.
  • Gmail/Google: In very rare cases, Gmail will allow next of kin to access the account. Also, a new Gmail update called Inactive Account Managers allows a user to decide if and when his account is treated as inactive and what happens to his data and who is notified in case of such account inactivity.

If you want to have control over what happens to your digital estate when you die, you need to plan for it in your will or trust. Creating a digital estate plan involves a multiple-step process:

  • Step 1:  Inventory your Digital Property. Make a list and update it frequently.
  • Step 2: Define your Wishes. Choose who will have access to your digital property and specify what they should do with it.
  • Step 3: Choose someone to execute your wishes. Provide access and control to that person including usernames and passwords. To maximize your cyber-security while allowing a named representative(s) to access your passwords after your death, a comprehensive list of passwords and usernames should be held in a secure place such as a safety deposit box.
  • Step 4: Give Appropriate Authority. Make sure you have documents in place that designate who will have the powers to manage your digital assets. Be cautious when entering detailed account information into a will because when a will is admitted to probate court, it becomes part of the public record and can be viewed by anyone who wants to access it. A trust may be a better place to document account information because, unlike a will, a trust never becomes part of the public record. If desired, one can create a “digital asset trust” where the trust can be the owner of digital property and will survive death, thus allowing designated persons to access the information.