A recent article in Maclean’s brought a seriously interesting dilemma to our attention. Consider this scenario. A loved one dies. You go through the deceased’s home, sorting out various possessions. And then you come across the laptop. Most people’s entire life is stored on that high-tech device. In the language of today’s world: digital assets.
But you can’t access them. You don’t have the password, and neither does anyone else. As the story reported: “Death in the age of technology, the internet and social media means people leave behind a lot more than furniture and clothes when they die.”
This is the core message in Ghosts of cyberspace, Prajakta Dhopade, Maclean’s (September 16, 2019). The story adds that few people have wills for traditional assets (51% of Canadian adults don’t, according to a 2018 Angus Reid report), so it’s hardly surprising that little or no thought goes into, as the article points out, “what to do with the bits of digital life strewn about the web and their hard drives.”
Your Digital Undertaker
The consequences can be catastrophic or, almost as bad, a source of headaches and heartaches. A recent book on the subject called Your Digital Undertaker by Sharon Hartung, expresses the issue in the following way:
The world has gone digital, and so have our estates. Everyone needs a will, and in the information age your estate now includes your entire digital life and footprint.
Idle Social Media Accounts
The Maclean’s story references the experience of Suzana Popovic-Montag, an estate lawyer and managing partner at Hull & Hull LLP in Toronto, who represented a client whose loved one’s death exposed a raft of idle social media accounts to hackers and impersonators.
Ms. Popovic-Montag was quoted as saying: “Someone hacked into the [Facebook] account and said terrible, terrible things. The family was just devastated.”
It is predicted, according to the Maclean’s story, “that Facebook will have 4.9 billion accounts for the dead by 2100 – outnumbering those for the living.”
Digital insiders refer to this statistic and to others equally terrifying, as the equivalent of a “data tsunami” – a tidal wave of information and accounts that will be the residue of the collective digital behaviour of Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z.
Digital Legacy Planning
The good news is that a number of proactive people, such as Angela Crocker and Vicki McLeod, co-authors of the Digital Legacy Plan – a book that provides guidance on what to do with your digital footprint after death – are developing specific strategies designed to help us cope with the problem.
The book offers solutions for the practical, social, emotional, and technical aspects of anyone’s digital legacy. Tools and resources are included throughout the book to help navigate digital estate planning and empower an estate’s executor.
That said it’s still possible for loved ones to be denied access to individual digital assets – even if permission to use passwords has been granted – since doing so might violate ‘terms of service’.
5 Steps You Can Take
While certain aspects of an individual’s digital legacy remain cloudy, there are a number of steps it is advisable to take, and issues to be aware of, as part of the estate planning process:
- Make an inventory of your digital assets.
- Update your will, being sure to grant your executor control over your digital accounts after death.
- Ensure that your executor is empowered to inform banks and credit unions about your death so that accounts can be frozen or dealt with accordingly.
- Take note of the fact that Facebook offers a legacy contact, allowing a user to designate someone to control the user’s social media account after death.
- Know that Google offers an inactive account manager, which reaches out to a designated contact if an account is dormant for more than a few months.
Be aware that until your executor gives your financial institution notice, withdrawals and investment activity will continue as usual, costing your estate money.
The bottom line is that our digital legacies are turning out to be as real as the kind we hold in our hands.