Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Online Accounts and Estate Planning

April 4, 2022

There are many factors to consider when planning your estate in the event of your incapacitation or death. While discussions regarding traditional assets are crucial in the planning process, other factors should also be taken into consideration, such as plans for digital assets and online accounts. Here are some common questions and key takeaways regarding online accounts and estate planning.

What Will Happen to my Online Accounts Such as Social Media, Email, Digital Music and Bank Accounts?

The answer to this question depends on many different factors and surprisingly, an Executor, Personal Representative or Trustee does not automatically have access to all of the deceased person’s online accounts. In many states, the decedent must have provided specific consent. Many states, including Ohio, have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADA) which provides access to online accounts to the legal representative if:

  1. the decedent activated a setting within the online account which provides direction to disclose the account contents upon death; or
  2. the decedent’s will specifically allows the legal representative to access online accounts.

Without one of these actions prior to death, the legal representative may not receive access to electronic communications unless the terms of service governing the account allow it. Even if a loved one passes away and a family member has all of their usernames and passwords, the family member cannot legally access the online accounts and must refer to either the will or direction granted within the account as RUFADA provides. Some online account services provide for digital legacy including Apple and Facebook.

Facebook, for example, allows the user to set up a “legacy contact” who will have limited access to the account to finish management of the account and make it a memorial to the user. The named legacy contact can write a pinned post to the profile and share a final message. The contact can decide who can see and post tributes and also delete tributes. Additionally, the legacy contact can change who sees tagged posts, remove tags, respond to new friend requests, update the profile picture and cover photo, request the removal of the account, turn off the review posts and tags before they appear in the tribute section if the review was turned on and download a copy of what was shared on Facebook if this feature was turned on.

To appoint a Facebook legacy contact:

  1. Click the drop-down arrow in the top right of Facebook.
  2. Select Settings & privacy, then click Settings.
  3. Click Memorialization settings.
  4. Type in a friend’s name in the “Choose a friend” text box and click Add.
  5. To let your friend know they’re the legacy contact, click Send.
  6. The legacy contact can be changed by following steps 1-2, then click Remove and add a new contact.

What If I Don’t Want Anyone to Have Access to My Social Media Accounts After I Die or Become Disabled?

Make sure your will and financial power of attorney specifically prohibit access to social media and online accounts. You can specifically list accounts that you would like to remain inaccessible. If the provider allows the user to activate an account setting to prohibit the release of your account upon death, the user should activate that setting.

What Happens If I Become Incapacitated?

Make sure that your financial power of attorney specifically allows a legal representative to access digital property, including online accounts and electronic communications. If the online account provider allows a user to activate an account setting to direct the provider to release digital property to a legal representative, sometimes called an “online tool,” then make sure to activate that setting.

Where Should I Store My Usernames and Passwords?

Clients are frequently advised to store usernames and passwords in a safe place. It may seem counter intuitive, but it makes sense to keep usernames and passwords on old fashion paper. Printing a list and keeping it locked in a secure location, preferably waterproof, fireproof and access-controlled. Usernames and passwords should never be stated in a will as a will may become public record.

In addition to a securely stored paper file, individuals can utilize password managers to stay cyber-safe and organized. The average online business user has 191 online passwords, and the nonbusiness user has 23, according to Security Magazine. These numbers may seem high, but only because most users have the username and password saved into the online account. Often, users use the same or a similar password for every account. Unfortunately, this practice exposes users to security threats. It is recommended that users create strong, unique passwords of randomly generated strings of letters, numbers and special characters. To keep track of these unique passwords, password managers provide some or all of the following services:

  • Generate, store and manage strong passwords
  • Save new passwords as a user browses the web
  • Log into any website with a click
  • Secure file and folder sharing
  • One-click login
  • Sync across devices
  • Generate real-time security breach alerts and offer secure vault sharing

As individuals become more and more dependent on online accounts, it is important to keep usernames and passwords safe and secure both during life and after. Make sure loved ones or trusted advisors know how to access or find the information. Perhaps, keep the username and password list (or the password manager details) stored with estate planning documents. Make sure to maintain updates and stay on top of the technology to make sure Power of Attorneys, Executors and Trustees can access accounts as necessary.

There are many factors to consider when planning your estate. KJK’s Estate, Wealth & Succession Planning attorneys can help you navigate through the process. If you have any questions about this article or would like assistance with planning your future in general, please contact Susie Friedman (SLF@kjk.com; 216.736.7272).