Including online assets in estate planning is a new thing, and the legal rules aren’t always entirely clear. But a number of states are now considering laws that will make things easier.
For instance, Delaware recently became the first state to pass a comprehensive law addressing what happens to someone’s online assets when they pass away. And 13 other states are currently considering such laws, so it’s likely the legal landscape will change dramatically in the next few years.
The Delaware law says that if a person dies, his or her executor can take control over the person’s online assets and distribute them to heirs. The same is true for trustees and other fiduciaries. This will be allowed unless the person specifically states otherwise in his or her will.
Online assets can be very important, since they can consist of thousands of photos and e-mails, Facebook and other social media accounts, music libraries, blogs, genealogy records, and domain names, as well as PayPal and other accounts with credit balances, detailed banking and investment records, automatic bill-paying processes, and so on.
Many families have experienced grief because someone died suddenly and hadn’t made provisions for access to their online assets. In some cases, online service providers have refused to give access to these assets to executors or family members – at least without a court battle.
So until the law is clarified, it could be wise to update your estate planning documents to make your wishes regarding your online assets clear.
You might also consider making your wishes clear to your online service providers. For instance, Google now lets you choose what you want to happen to your e-mail if you pass away. And Facebook recently began allowing people to name a “legacy contact” who can manage a person’s page after they die.
In general, if you don’t name a legacy contact on Facebook, the page will be frozen and no one will be able to update it. (You should note that even if you do name a legacy contact, that person will not be able to access your private messages.)
One thing to give careful thought to is that your e-mail accounts may contain private, personal messages from other people that you don’t necessarily want to be read by family members or other heirs who might inherit an account.
In fact, a group of Internet companies strongly opposed the Delaware law in part for this reason. They made the argument that a doctor, therapist, accountant, or other professional might well have highly personal e-mail correspondence from patients or clients, and those people would likely be surprised and dismayed if the e-mails were suddenly turned over to the professional’s family members without their permission.