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Digital estate planning: Accessing online assets

When someone dies, managing their digital assets — like social media or email accounts —can be complicated. These steps can help.

Tags: Estate planning
Published: February 13, 2019

Nearly everyone has digital accounts today, and these accounts often continue to exist even after death. If you’re managing a loved one’s estate, you may be wondering how to access their online accounts, from email to social media to subscriptions.

In the best case, they will have left a list of usernames and passwords, and provided directions for what to do with each account in their will. When this isn’t the case, you’ll have to take some steps to recover them.
 

Take stock

The first step is to take inventory of what digital assets your loved one may have had. Consider:

  • Email accounts
  • Social media accounts
  • Items stored on the cloud, including:
    • Photos and/or videos
    • Documents
    • Contact lists
  • Websites or digital storefronts (such as Amazon)
  • Online banking or brokerage accounts
  • Subscription services (e.g., online services, renewing app subscriptions, etc.)
  • College savings plans
  • Retirement plans
     

How to access online assets

Different accounts have different requirements, and some require more steps than others.

Consider these general guidelines to help you prepare:

Request certified copies of the death certificate

  • Contact the state’s office or the county clerk where the person died for records. There may be a fee for the request. You may want to request multiples in case more than one organization requires an official copy.

Check for access rules

  • A number of digital services have an automated system to help you access or close a deceased user’s account. Popular platforms’ resource pages include: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, PayPal, and Yahoo.

Contact the company or service

  • Organizations such as banks and financial institutions don’t have automated systems for accessing accounts and require a more in-depth process. Contact these companies to start the process and figure out what steps you need to take.

 Gather other files and identification

  • Some services may require you to provide additional information on you, the deceased, or both. Compile identification documents, Social Security numbers, bank statements, account numbers and other information you think might be relevant.

Obtain a letter of testamentary

  • A letter of testamentary is a legal document that proves you have authority to make decisions for an estate. If you are named as an executor in a will, you need to submit forms to probate court to get a letter. This may not be needed for every online account but could be a part of administering the estate.
     

Potential obstacles

Keep in mind there are variables that can complicate the process of getting into a loved one’s online accounts. Terms of Service agreements may legally restrict who can access an account or what content they can recover from those accounts. Some companies are working to create specific policies to help in these situations. For instance, Google provides an inactive account manager feature. Skirting these restrictions could mean breaking federal privacy laws or laws against unauthorized access of computers.

Fortunately, states are setting up laws to help people include their wishes for their digital assets with their estate plans. Not every state has these laws yet, though, and account access may still be determined by the Terms of Service agreements if directions are not laid out in a will.

 

Consider working with a financial or legal professional if you need help managing a loved one’s estate and recovering or closing their online accounts. And don’t forget to account for your digital assets in your own estate planning.