In the not-so-olden days of a few years ago, relatives might have sifted through stacks of documents to sort out your affairs after you died. These days, much of your presence in this world is floating around in the cloud: email, online drives, social media. Even your financial accounts are probably paperless at this point.
To give your family access to your accounts after you die, you need to do some work in advance, leaving instructions in your will for everything from access to your Facebook page to how to redeem your cryptocurrency.
“Most estate plans are silent on all this stuff — and that is a big problem,” said Kevin Ruth, head of wealth planning and personal trust for Boston-based Fidelity Investments.
Here are a few tips on how to deal with your digital legacy:
* Write it all down.
Passwords and logins may be all in your head, but they are not in anybody else’s. So do a full accounting of everywhere you might be digitally — Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, bank accounts, 401(k) providers, bitcoin exchanges — and document how to get access.
The importance of this hit Houston financial planner Ashley Foster like a sledgehammer around three years ago. The 33-year-old had a close friend from high school who was struck down by aggressive colon cancer, and he watched helplessly as the family struggled to get access to all of his friend’s accounts.
Foster took action to get his own digital life in order — documenting logins and passwords, putting them in a safe-deposit box, and giving instructions to loved ones. He counsels his clients to do the same.
How you do that is really about personal preference. If you are the kind of person who uses Post-its, then use them — just get the information down, said James Lamm, an estate planning and tax attorney with Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis.
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Nowadays there are online “safes” where you can store codes like this, such as Fidelity’s FidSafe — a service available to everybody, not just the firm’s clients, notes Ruth.
* Appoint a digital executor.
In a traditional will, you name certain people to handle affairs if you pass away or are incapacitated. Same goes for digital property. This could very well be a different person than the one handling your financial or health care directives.
If you are drafting a will now, make sure to include these digital issues with the help of an estate planning attorney. If you have an existing will that was drawn up in the past, it is very likely you need to update it, since “almost nobody” was dealing with these issues 10 years ago, advised Lamm.
You should also make sure to back up your information to a laptop or thumb drive, which will make it easier for your representatives to manage than just the cloud. Facebook, for example, has a button to do just that: Under ‘Settings’, click ‘Download a copy of your Facebook data’ at the bottom of General Account Settings.
* Think about your wishes
Would you prefer that your accounts be deleted altogether? Or do you want them to stay up indefinitely as a memorial? These are the kinds of decisions you can make now. On Facebook you can designate a “legacy contact,” who can handle some functions of your account, but not all (such as seeing private messages).
Remember that sites are not all alike. Facebook, in particular, is known to be militant about never allowing anyone to access to your personal account, which has led to questions of legality that are still before the courts, said Lamm.
*Do not be cryptic about crypto
Imagine you are a “bitcoin millionaire” who passes away unexpectedly: It can be like losing a winning lottery ticket. “Sometimes people know that their loved ones owned bitcoin, but they have no idea where it was purchased or how to access it,” says Fidelity’s Ruth. “And we can be talking about a significant amount of money.”
Bitcoins come with a “private key,” or a secret number that allows the currency to be accessed and transferred. Bitcoin exchanges, for their part, have their own usernames and pass codes on top of that. Leave all this information behind, said Lamm — or your crypto bonanza could be gone forever.
(Editing by Beth Pinsker; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)