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Planning For the Disposition of Your Digital Assets for When You Die


You and I have at least one thing in common. We’re both going to die at some point in the future. Before that happens, remember that digital data can be more important than real world goods. You take steps to arrange for the disposition of your physical possessions in the event of death. How about your email account and other online accounts? If you’re a Gmail user, the Backupify blog recently took a look at what happens to your Gmail account when you die. That article got me thinking beyond just email, to how to best make sure that your digital assets pass to your next of kin when you die.

The Problem

Why might your next of kin need access to your data? Online accounts now often hold crucial information, or control the ability to access information. For example, email accounts now serve as the key to accessing many other accounts. If you need a password reset, that’s where the reset message gets sent. Although not ideal from a security standpoint, some people also use their Gmail accounts to store sensitive financial information, such as information on retirement accounts.

The obvious solution is to make sure that your significant other has your account credentials. This might not be ideal in all situations, though. According to the Backupify story, for example, impersonating another user is a violation of Google’s terms of service, and could result in the suspension or termination of an account. This seems unlikely to happen, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan for the possibility.

According to Backupify, your spouse can apply for access to your account after you’ve died. Those steps sound pretty onerous, though, and also require legal papers. Further, according to the story, your spouse will only have access to the contents of the account. He or she won’t actually be able to use it.

Backupify suggests that you treat your virtual assets the same as my non-virtual ones, which includes accounting for those assets in your will. The story points out that online providers may not have accounted for this, but that it will increasingly become an issue.

With all this in mind, what are some other precautions that you could take?

Thoughts on Possible Solutions

Here’s my take, from a non-lawyer (well, I am a lawyer, but not an estate lawyer), on how to make sure your digital life passes smoothly when you die. Since I’m not estate lawyer, here’s the standard disclaimer: you should consult with your own lawyer before making any decisions that involve legal ramifications.

1. In your will, account for your email accounts, password accounts (such as LastPass), and other important accounts, such as your Evernote account, by naming a digital beneficiary;

2. Make sure your spouse knows how to access your accounts. I keep my LastPass password locked up in our safe, and have explained to my wife that she’ll need that and my Yubikey on my keychain in order to get into my LastPass account, should I meet with an untimely end. She’ll also need Authenticator on my phone to get into my Google accounts. However you convey this information to your spouse, make sure that it is secure. You don’t want to create a security hole in the process of planning for your death;

3. Consider online services, such as Entrustet, that take care of the disposition of digital assets upon death (and then hope that those services are still around when you die);

4. Have local backups of your important information, so that your spouse won’t have to deal with a third party to get access to the important stuff.

Those are just a few thoughts of my own. If you have other suggestions for how to deal with your digital assets when you die, let us know in the comments.