Know The Law: Online Accounts After Death

Chris Paul Headshot
Christopher R. Paul
Director and Vice-Chair, Trusts & Estates Department
Published: Union Leader
December 7, 2012

Q. I recently read about rumors that actor Bruce Willis is looking to sue Apple after learning that he cannot pass on his iTunes collection to his children after his death. I wonder, what will happen to my online accounts and digital assets when I pass away. What can I do now to make sure my executor can pay my bills and my wishes are respected?

A:  Providing access to online accounts and disposing of digital assets after your death is often overlooked. Failing to plan for access to your online accounts at death can result in losses to your estate and make it expensive and even impossible for your representative to identify and administer all your digital assets.

The category called “digital assets” is broader (and more valuable) than many realize. Software licenses, “content”, your online “presence”, and online accounts are all categories of digital assets. Specific examples include websites and domain names, blogs, listservs, social network and email accounts, music, books and photographs in the “cloud”, financial accounts, PayPal, frequent flyer, rewards, and even poker and video game accounts.

Laws regarding access to digital assets have been slow to develop and existing privacy laws add complexity. It is often governed by those lengthy, jargon-filled documents that users must “agree” to and that few bother to read. According to Yahoo’s agreement, at death all rights terminate and Yahoo will delete all files.

First, you should make a list of all of your digital assets. As you become more “paperless”, you will need secure but accessible records of your digital assets.  You should consider various options for tracking digital assets, while balancing security with ease of updating.

Decide what you wish to do with your digital assets. Do you want to transfer, archive, share, or even destroy the content of various online accounts? Consider including a “Digital Asset Instruction Letter” with your Will or Trust to provide guidance. You should think about who should have access to your accounts when you die. What are the “digital” qualifications and capabilities of selected representatives?

Finally, it is important to include in your Will, Trust, and Power of Attorney provisions granting representatives authority to access your online accounts. While the law currently offers little specific guidance and such provisions do not guarantee all service providers will comply, they will help provide your representative access to your accounts and insure compliance with your wishes.