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How to make an estate plan for your digital assets

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The founders of Everplans, a tech company that helps people with estate planning, have now written a useful book: “In Case You Get Hit By a Bus: How to Organize Your Life Now for When You’re Not Around Later” (Workman Publishing; Copyright © 2020). Here’s an excerpt with essential, practical advice about creating a digital estate plan, so your wishes for your digital accounts are carried out after your death.

What happens to all your digital accounts, services and property after you die? The official name for all these is a Digital Estate Plan. And with the lines increasingly blurred between our on- and off-line lives, it’s more important than ever to have a plan for your digital holdings.

With one in place, all your digital accounts and services can be deleted, managed or transferred to someone else after you’re gone. You can also ensure all paid or recurring services are closed and not draining money from your bank account or racking up credit card debt. Finally, a plan will provide guidance and direction about what you want done with your digital assets and overall online presence.

In the same way you need to organize your physical possessions, if you don’t get a handle on your digital life, you’re leaving a huge mess for your family when you sign off from this world.

Almost all 50 states have passed laws that give a person’s family (or the executor of their estate) the right to access and manage some of their digital assets after they die. Even so, many of the accounts we use on a daily basis are governed by the terms of service or privacy policy of that particular service — such as Gmail, Facebook
FB,
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or Amazon
AMZN,
-1.21%
— which still want to determine what should be done with an account after death.

Although Facebook has a Legacy Contact and Google
GOOGL,
-0.93%
has Inactive Account Manager, those suppose you take the time to get your digital affairs in order ahead of time. Since people don’t often do this, you might need to take things into your own hands. This means sharing passwords and instructions with someone else.

We recommend getting a password manager so you only need to remember one password and can easily share some or all of your passwords with someone you trust. Otherwise, you’ll need to provide instructions alongside each of your accounts in whatever password storage method you choose.

Not all digital accounts and services are created equal.

The main things to consider for each account you have: the level of importance (if you were to delete it today, how would it affect your life?);  single sign-on (do you use the credentials for this account to log in to other accounts?); payment method (is there a credit card, bank account routing number or another form of cash attached to the account?) and ultimate fate (should it be deleted, transferred or do you just not care?)

Related: Who gets the points and miles when someone dies?

Most of your accounts can be organized into neat categories, but then there are the “mothership” accounts that stand above all the rest because they provide multiple services and play by their own set of rules. They are:

Google

If someone needed to reset a password to gain access to an account that bills you, Gmail is likely where it would go down. If you don’t want your email to be read, you can use Google’s Inactive Account Manager option. Other Google services include Google Drive, Chrome and YouTube. You can identify all its services associated with your account when you log in and view the page myaccount.google.com.

You can see why granting someone access to your account and telling them what you want done with it after you’re gone could be the most important aspect of your Digital Estate Plan.

Google’s Inactive Account Manager is a post-death solution based on your level of inactivity. You can set that from three months to a year and a half. If you don’t access any of Google’s services within that time frame, Google sets off a series of events that will delete your entire account or share it with someone you named as a “trusted contact.”

Facebook

It’s become a major source of single sign-on when you use Facebook to log in to other sites so you don’t have to create a new set of credentials.

Memorializing a Facebook account after death has become a standard practice. Anything the deceased posted is still visible and, depending on their account settings, a “Remembering” badge is added to the profile and friends can still add memories and comment on their wall. If a Legacy Contact was appointed, that person can update the main photo, respond to friend requests and include a pinned post at the top of the profile. They can’t access any direct messages, which are kept private.

Watch: The Moneyist: Meet the mother-in-law from hell

If you want to remain virtually visible to the world, take the memorialization and Legacy Contact path. If you want your account deleted the way Facebook suggests, name a Legacy Contact and select the option that you want your account deleted.

Amazon

Amazon has found a way into almost every aspect of our lives including streaming (Prime Video), music (Amazon Music), digital books (Kindle) and more.

If you’ve been building a substantial library of digital books, you might want to keep the account alive either by having someone take it over or removing any payment options and keeping it dormant to access those purchases.

Before you delete an Amazon account, be aware of the implications. Any canceled credit cards will need to be updated to prevent a disruption in service.

Apple

If you’ve got an iPhone, MacBook, iPad, Apple
AAPL,
-1.51%
Watch or AppleTV and use any of the company’s services (iCloud, Safari browser, Apple Music…) you’ll want to follow a route similar to the one you did with Amazon.

The Apple ID is digital gold and grants access to all of these services. Anyone who might be taking control of your iKingdom needs the username and password, as well as the associated email account (to update or reset the password) and the access code to the iPhone (if two-step verification is enabled).

Also see: This surprising state is now a No. 1 retirement destination

Don’t delete or transfer on a whim; once an Apple account is closed or inaccessible, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

Microsoft

Microsoft
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-1.53%
has Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail.com), Office, Skype, Xbox, LinkedIn and other services. The Microsoft ID (formerly known as Passport) consolidates every Microsoft service.  A person with this will have full access to all the services you have.

If you pay for a LinkedIn Premium account, you’ll want it canceled. If you pay for an Office 365 subscription or an Xbox Live account, you’ll have to make arrangements for those, too. Otherwise, you can either have someone take them over by changing the email and payment options or let them all disappear into the abyss.

A few ‘final’ words

Once you’ve identified what you want done with all the accounts that matter, you need someone who’ll make the instructions you leave behind a reality. That’s your Digital Executor. Appoint this person in your will or make it clear to your executor that they’re also responsible for your digital accounts and assets.

Read next: My aunt stole my mother’s Social Security, and persuaded my elderly father to sign over power of attorney

Don’t include passwords or what you want done with your digital accounts in your will. A will is a public document and you don’t want this private information floating around for identity thieves to steal. All the instructions you leave behind should be in a separate place.

Excerpted from “In Case You Get Hit by a Bus: How to Organize Your Life Now for When You’re Not Around Later” by Abby Schneiderman, Adam Seifer and Gene Newman; Workman Publishing, Copyright © 2020.

Abby Schneiderman is the co-author of “In Case You Get Hit By a Bus” and the co-founder and co-CEO of Everplans.com, an estate planning website. 

Adam Seifer is co-author of “In Case You Get Hit By a Bus” and co-founder and co-CEO of Everplans.com, an estate planning website. 

Gene Newman is co-author of “In Case You Get Hit By a Bus” and editorial director of Everplans.com, an estate planning site. 

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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