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Digital Estate Planning: Who Should Have Access to Your On-line Accounts?

By Harry S. Margolis

Facebook has recently implemented a legacy contact to give an individual you name access to some aspects of your Facebook account after you pass away. Google instituted a similar Inactive Account Manager in 2013. Both are responses to an increasingly common dilemma as individuals pass away “owning” many Internet accounts and identities.

As a legal matter, one would think that the executor or personal representative of the deceased individual would have authority to access and manage any accounts she may have, whether that means managing an investment account or taking down her Facebook page. In general, personal representatives stand in the shoes of the deceased once their appointment has been authorized by the probate court.

However, all of our on-line accounts are governed by the those agreements that we check off without reading whenever we start using a service. Whether these are enforceable contracts may be arguable, but who wants to enter into litigation with Facebook or Google? They follow their own rules to which we have nominally agreed. Fortunately, they have begun to listen to their users and now permit some after death control.

The new Facebook rules permit us each to name a “legacy contact” and to choose to have the account deleted upon our deaths or to have it continue with the word “Remembering” placed next to your name. If the account continues, the person you name as a legacy contact may do the following:

  1. Write a post on your page, perhaps with your final words or information about a memorial service.
  2. Respond to new friend requests.
  3. Update your profile and cover photos.

The legacy contact may not:

  1. Log in to your account.
  2. Remove or change past posts or photos.
  3. Read messages you have sent to other Facebook friends.
  4. Remove any friends.

Part of the reason that the legacy contact does not have full control of your Facebook identity is to preserve your privacy. You may have had interactions with other Facebook friends that you don’t want out in the open when you are gone. This may also be true of your Twitter, Instagram and on-line dating sites.

On the other hand, in many cases it may make it easier for everyone if the person you choose has full access to all of your accounts, whether in the event of your incapacity or death. You can make this possible by sharing your account usernames and passwords with that individual. Of course, it can be difficult to keep this information up-to-date as it changes over time, but some effort is better than none. In addition, there’s the question of security. However you share access to your on-line accounts — by email or a written list, for instance — there’s the potential of the wrong person getting this information. So, be careful.

It should be no surprise that a number of companies have begun to provide solutions to this dilemma, as well as the difficulty of remembering all of our usernames and passwords. In essence, they keep track of all of your usernames and passwords in one place so all you need to remember and provide your trusted agent are a single username and password. The businesses, which include PasswordBox, LastPass and Password Genie, among others, store the information securely and through encryption processes automatically provide the username and password to your computer whenever you need to sign on to any of your on-line accounts. For more information about the available password management services click here.

In short, as our world gets more complicated there are more issues we need to plan around. Fortunately, Internet providers like Facebook and Google, as well as smaller start ups are beginning to provide solutions.

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