Many years ago, in a world some can barely remember, computers didn’t exist. If you had important documents, they were handwritten or typed and scattered throughout file cabinets and safes. When someone died, the person in charge of the estate had the unenviable task of locating all of these papers.
Now, in the digital world, these documents are more than likely stored on a computer. Not only are important documents stored on a computer, or even in a cloud, but personal data such as online accounts for banks and investments, family photos, Facebook and other social media content also reside there. So what happens when the person who created and “owns” this data dies?
Several states have passed laws that control who can access digital assets after death. Florida lawmakers introduced legislation in 2015 that would have provided guidelines for this state, but it didn’t pass. So, without a state law that regulates these assets, who has control after death?
Actually, in some instances, the owner of the site where the data is located has control. Most people never read the terms when they sign up for an account, but social media providers such as Facebook, Instagram and others tell YOU what happens to your information after you die. And, due to privacy concerns, unless some prior arrangement has been made, it can be extremely difficult to get access to passwords and usernames needed to get bank account balances or even save family photos that have been stored online.
Some of the social media providers have been addressing the issue in limited ways. Facebook now has a feature which allows the selection of a “Legacy Contact” – in essence, an executor of your Facebook page. While the “Contact” will have some control over your Facebook account, he or she cannot remove or change information that was posted there prior to your death. One of the lawmakers who introduced one of the Florida bills says that this “improvement” actually proves her point: Facebook is still in control of what can be done with the account.
Until Florida adopts some legislation in this evolving area of estate planning, anyone who uses the Internet for personal, financial or any other purpose should get legal advice on how to preserve his or her digital footprint, and how to make sure that it can be accessed after death.