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Digital Estate Planning: What Happens to Your Online Accounts When You Die?

By: R. Christopher Dix, Esq. and Thomas R. Heekin, Esq.

Most people are familiar with estate planning: It’s the process of preparing how your assets will be handled once you die. But did you know that in our increasingly technology-centered world, digital estate planning is now a thing, too?

Digital Estate Planning: What Happens to Your Online Accounts When You Die?

Your digital assets include any interests you have that are kept in an electronic record. This can encompass a number of things such as:

  • Email accounts
  • Internet photo albums
  • Online bank accounts
  • Online shopping accounts
  • Social media profiles

If you don’t plan ahead of time, your successor — your surviving spouse, child or other beneficiary — may have a difficult time accessing this information.

Laws and rules surrounding digital assets

We’re all familiar with those lengthy “terms of service” agreements that come with every online account you create or app you download. (You know what we’re talking about: those blocks of text that most people skip over just to click “Agree.”)

But did you know that according to most of these agreements, the only person who can access the account is the individual who created it? In fact, some federal laws can actually make it a crime for a third person to access the account.

That said, there are some state laws — including a uniform act known in Florida as The Florida Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act — that seek to allow fiduciaries to access those accounts without violating those service agreements. (A fiduciary is the person to whom you give power to handle your assets, such as an executor of an estate, a trustee of a trust or an agent under a power of attorney.) 

How to designate a successor for your online assets

As part of traditional estate planning, you can name an individual in your will who you grant access to your digital accounts after your death.

So how do you designate who has access to your accounts after you die? There are essentially three ways:

1. Online on a case-by-case basis — Many online platforms have a setting that allows you to designate a person who can access your account after your death. (For example, Facebook allows you to appoint a “Facebook heir” for your profile.)

2. In your traditional will — You can designate a fiduciary to your digital assets in your traditional will. This can be a catchall applicable to all of your online accounts and assets.

3. A combination of both — You can designate certain fiduciaries with individual online accounts and then have a clause in your traditional will that acts as a catchall for the remaining accounts you don’t specify. You could also just spell out which person should be the fiduciary for which account (if, for example, you wanted your spouse to have access to bank accounts but your children to “inherit” your social media profiles).

It’s important to note, however, that if you designate a fiduciary online within an individual account’s settings, that will take precedence and override the will when it comes to that particular account.

The next step: Inventory your online accounts

Something actionable you can do right now? Inventory your online accounts and keep a safe record of your account information and passwords. The reality is that whether you create a will or not, someone will have to be in charge of your estate, and that person will likely have to figure out that information.

If you set aside this list, you can save your successor the time and frustration of coordinating with all of those individual companies and online providers to access your accounts. There are also programs out there such as LastPass (among others) that can securely store all of your passwords and account information and pass it on to your designee when you die.

Need help navigating trust and estate planning? Contact Thomas Heekin at theekin@smithhulsey.com or call us at (904) 359-7700.

Note: This article was based on an episode of “The PG Podcast” with Chris Dix. Listen to the episode here or wherever you get your podcasts.

The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only. It does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. Readers should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter.

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