Death & Online Asset Inheritance: Digital Will for Data?

Digital-Last-Will-Testament

by Mike Valentine

Can you write your digital online media into your will? Think ebooks, digital music, domain names, paid subscriptions? Who owns your online photos? What if you walk out your front door on the way to work one morning and are suddenly struck by an asteroid? What happens to social media accounts when you die?

What happens to that digital legacy? Do you want your online business to evaporate? Do you want your relatives or friends or business associates to be able to retrieve that data, your passwords, your books, photos, services and email communications?

There is no unified, formal or legally recognized way for your family, friends or business associates to resolve those ongoing charges or retrieve those balances from online accounts. What arrangements have you made for family members to back up your photos, download your ebooks, and perhaps gather your communications from email or social media?

We are reluctant to think of this (and therefore pay for it) in advance. Lawsuits tend to attract our attention and sometimes attract the attention of regulators. This appears to have happened after a lawsuits against Facebook and Twitter. Excerpt below:

For instance, in 2012, Canadian teenager Amanda Todd committed suicide after being bullied on Facebook. The harassment continued even after her death, but her family wasn’t able to delete the comments from her page, or to disable it altogether.

In another instance, an Oregon mother sued Facebook to get access to her deceased son’s account in 2005, after he died in a motorcycle accident.

Ars Technica covers parts of this story in a piece titled “Delaware becomes first state to give executors broad digital assets access” covering the “Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act.“.

This may be the tipping point for other states to take up the topic and eventually for Federal regulators to follow suit. The concept of passing along your digital life ought to be weighed by everyone who has even a light digital presence which could include their social media profiles and service providers of their email accounts.

Let’s look at a typical scenario. This clearly varies by individual and how much of their life is lived online, but we can be fairly certain that most people will have one or two of the following:

  1. Email Account – (web mail or internet service provider)
  2. Facebook
  3. Twitter
  4. Photo Hosting (Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr, Google Photos, iPhoto on iCloud)

Then there are people just a bit more involved in online life who might have a few more accounts like:

  1. Ebay Seller
  2. Paypal Account
  3. Etsy Seller
  4. Blog
  5. Audible (audiobooks)

There are a few more who spend even more time online and have

  1. Online Banking
  2. Domain Names
  3. Professional Services
  4. Web Hosting
  5. Digital News Subscriptions (news, trade pubs, digital magazines)
  6. Digital Music Subscriptions (streaming, monthly download, hosting)

Those reading this list may recognize that several online services or accounts they consider essential are not accounted for above and wonder how I could possibly leave off services like (name yours) genealogy research, dating, job search, or Apartment or real estate search – all seem important to you if you use them.

Let’s look at this from a slightly different angle now. If any of the accounts listed above are paid services or if they hold a balance of funds (Paypal, Online Banking) or if they automatically invoice your accounts and relatives can’t stop ongoing charges against your bank account? You’d want your significant other to be able to stop those charges from occurring every month now that you’ve disappeared and can’t turn them off yourself.

What is needed is broad awareness of the problems mentioned here and a standard for resolution from digital service providers. They all need to address it by providing reasonable access to the executors of wills to access outstanding balances from financial providers like PayPal and online banks. We also need a standard for family members to request a shut down of recurring charges after a death.

I’ve written before of a startup called MyWebWill that helped to manage this scenario, but it apparently failed around 2011 – Twitter account (their last tweet is below)

A LinkedIn Page with no entries still exists. Apparently they didn’t plan for their own company demise?

The old MyWebWill.com is now a parked page at the registrar saying this domain is for sale.

MyWebWill Domain Sale

MyWebWill Domain Sale

There is a 2010 Mashable story on “7 Resources for Handling Digital Life After Death” which includes WebWill above and a few more that have been acquired or gone silent. One that remains appears to be a service that was acquired by a password management tool called LegacyLocker.

Note added January, 2015 – LegacyLocker has been acquired by Intel via their purchase of PasswordBox.

It seems that companies attempting to focus on what one calls “Data Inheritance” are often acquired by, and wrapped into existing password storage companies. This lead me to take a look at a couple of well known password storage companies and how they handle the issue. Dashlane is a significant password company that has been promoting itself via online ads recently. As of the date of this writing, they have no visible public offering of Digital Legacy or Data Inheritance.

Let’s hop over to 1Password from AgileBits – where the most said about this concept is in a 1Password discussion forum here. The discussion is marked “closed” after the forum moderator says to a commenter who suggested “Digital Estate Kit” as a part of 1Password:

“I’ve passed along your suggestion to our developers – now, I’m certainly not in charge of anything, but I do think there is room to do some cool stuff here.”

No “cool stuff” has been publicly discussed on the site so far.

So there must be no profit in “Digital Estate Planning” because startups offering the service fail or get acquired by companies that do make the service a parenthetical add-on to existing paid services. The place it will end up then is in the hands of estate attorneys who suggest preparing by each individual (or their attorney).

This is the state of digital inheritance services until an entrepreneur discovers a viable mass business model. Nobody likes to think about death after all.

I’ll continue to add references to additional stories (as they continue to appear) below:

Here’s an article from the “South China Morning Post” called “The Facebook Afterlife: What Happens to your Digital Footprint after You Die?

Marketwatch reports on digital music and digital books access by your heirs, concluding that it might be simplest to just allow one person your itunes password and your computer login.

Fortune Discusses Apple Policy for a Widow to request a deceased husbands Apple ID – She’s told “You need a court order”

Attorney Kent Ninomiya on Social Media after death

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