Planning Your Digital Estate…Part I

I’m going to date myself, but I still vividly remember signing up for my first “electronic” mail account in the early 90’s when I was a freshman in college. I guess it was memorable because it required traveling down into a dark basement underneath one of the buildings. I picked a really strange address name at the time instead of my name, but I have learned to keep my email identity simple since. Email has been joined by a myriad of other internet services. Everyday someone can upload videos onto the net, pay bills on-line, connect with others via social media websites. Fast forward almost 20 years; the internet has become ubiquitous.

Integration has given birth to a person’s “digital life” and the need for your estate plan to determine who should have that digital asset.  Many fail to see how their email account would even be part of their estate.

A few years ago, Justin Ellsworth, a U.S. Marine, was killed in Iraq and his family requested access to his Yahoo email account to retrieve pictures, emails, etc. residing in Justin’s account. Yahoo, citing its privacy policy, did not relinquish access to Ellsworth’s family. Eventually, Ellsworth’s parents successfully sued forcing Yahoo to turn over the information. However, it cost the Ellsworth’s untold hardship along with a great deal of money in legal fees to gain access to something that normally is only clicks away on a keyboard.

To appropriately plan your virtual life, it is important to understand internet providers’ privacy policies.

Here is a quick rundown of the major providers:

  • Google: Google mail requires a copy of a death certificate, copy of a power of attorney or birth certificate and a copy of an email sent from the account you are trying to close. A Google account will stay open forever barring a request to delete it.
  • Yahoo: Has not changed their policy since the Ellsworth case and there is no right of survivorship and non-transferability. Upon receipt of a death certificate, Yahoo will terminate the account and delete all of the contents. Yahoo accounts only have a ninety (90) day window before deleting an account based on inactivity.
  • Hotmail: Falls in between Yahoo and Google. They will grant access to the account after being provided similar information as Google but will eventually delete the account after a year of inactivity.
  • Facebook: The account is turned “off” and made into a memorial for the person upon request. Facebook grants no ability to edit, limits access to the site but will remove the “person” based on requests from next of kin after being provided similar information as Google.
  • Twitter: Has what appears to be no official policy but states they cannot disclose account information or passwords to anyone, even post-death. Twitter will remove an account after given notice with a death certificate and may remove an account based on 6 months of inactivity.

A simple glance reveals that each provider has a slightly different privacy policies with respect to their willingness to open up a user’s account to a non-user. If a decedent or incapacitated person has a number of accounts, that means a multiple hurdles to overcome.

There has to be a solution and I will get into that next time.


About Chris Guest

I am a trust and estate planning attorney working in the Washington, DC metro area. I offer comprehensive estate planning, trust administration, probate services and general business counseling for accountants, attorneys, business owners, consultants, federal and local government employees, retirees, other business professionals and other individuals.
This entry was posted in Digital Assets, Digital Estate Planning, Estate Planning, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Planning Your Digital Estate…Part I

  1. Pingback: Planning | VA Estate Planner

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