Death and Your Digital Identity

What happens to online accounts when you die? Digital identity is defined broadly and may include a person’s email accounts, online financial accounts, cloud accounts, digital music accounts, blogs, social networking identities, and digital files. Digital files are not limited to data files but also include photos, audio, and video files.  

Your digital identity is oftentimes in the hands of others. While you feed information about yourself to others on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, the mobile apps and online platforms own the information, pictures, audio, and video files with you and can continue to maintain your profiles and use your digital files, even if you die.

Many digital files cannot be gifted to family members or other persons because only the deceased person has the unlimited right to access and use these items because they own a license permitting them to do so. On their death however, the license is terminated. For example, in the past your father could gift you his physical record collection upon his death. The albums are transferrable, and the owner is the person who physically possesses the items. If your father however converted those physical albums into digital files and threw out the albums when he was done, he cannot gift the digital files to anyone because he does not own the digital right to transfer the audio files, even if the digital collection is a mirror image of his physical or hard album collection.

The best way to maintain some control of your digital identity is to leave instructions in your will for the executor or personal representative in your estate plan with detailed instructions on how your digital accounts should be handled after your death. You can also leave instructions in a power of attorney to cover the use of your digital identity during a period of physical or mental incapacity.

For example, you can instruct your executor to copy all of your photos and videos, delete them, and close the account upon your death. You can also instruct your executor to leave your Facebook account active as a memorial of sorts to anyone who wants to access it. A blog or license domain name on the other hand, is a transferable asset, and you can gift the maintenance and growth of those digital assets to others. In all cases it is very important to provide your executor with username and access codes to all of your digital accounts. The will or living trust must contain explicit instructions and clearly identify the digital asset that is to be transferred. For example, “all of my videos of my children’s school events stored in my dropbox account.”

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