Who Gets Your Digital Assets: Heirs or Hackers?

A digital executor can help ensure your heirs inherit online assets while protecting your privacy after death.
Liz Weston, CFP®
By Liz Weston, CFP® 
Edited by Rick VanderKnyff

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A bank or brokerage can’t just take your money when you die. If you don’t have a will or other estate plan, the laws of your state determine who gets the value in those accounts.

Your digital assets are a different story. Your online photos and videos, frequent flyer miles, cryptocurrency and other digitally stored files may well disappear without a trace if you don’t make a plan to pass them along.

Conversely, some stuff you may prefer to shut down or keep private — emails and texts, social media accounts, dating app profiles — could be shared or hacked unless you take steps to secure the information.

Make a list

Estate planning experts recommend creating an inventory of your online accounts and digital files, along with your login ID, passwords, the answers to any security questions and what type of two-factor authentication, if any, is in use. (Two-factor authentication is often a code that’s texted or emailed to you or generated using a smartphone app.)

Start with a list of your devices — smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers — and their passwords, along with passwords to any important apps (such as that code generator). Then inventory the other electronic records you use, own or control. Here are some categories to consider, along with some examples to jog your memory:

  • Email accounts (Gmail, Yahoo, work email)

  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram)

  • Storage and file sharing (Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive)

  • Rewards (travel rewards, credit card points, retailer loyalty programs)

  • Shopping services (Amazon, Walmart, Etsy, eBay)

  • Blogs and online businesses (domain name registrars, hosting services, online business accounts)

  • Gaming accounts (Xbox, PlayStation)

  • Video services (Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, SlingTV)

  • Music services (Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora)

  • Books (Kindle, Audible, Apple Books)

  • Photo sharing and storage (Shutterfly, Flickr, SmugMug)

  • Online dating accounts (Match,Tinder, eHarmony)

  • Virtual currency (bitcoin, ethereum, World of Warcraft)

Decide who gets what

Some assets can’t be passed down. When you buy a book or song online, for example, you’re typically only buying a license that expires when you do, says Ray Radigan, head of private trust at TD Wealth in New York. One workaround is to set up a family account that allows you to share your digital bounty now and after you die.

Many travel providers also insist in their “terms and conditions” that rewards aren’t your property, but their actual policies vary. Many airlines, for example, will transfer frequent flyer miles to the appropriate heirs, says Karin Prangley, senior vice president at financial services firm Brown Brothers Harriman in Chicago.

Some companies, including Google and Facebook, allow you to designate someone to handle your account when you die. Others simply close or deactivate accounts when they learn of a death. Searching for the company name along with the phrase “what happens to my account when I die” can turn up its policies.

Once you decide what you want to happen with each type of account or digital asset, write down your wishes. You can leave these instructions and the relevant login credentials in a letter, stored with your other estate planning documents, that can be given to the person you want to carry out those wishes: your digital executor.

Appoint your ‘digital executor’

Your digital executor could be the same trusted person who settles the rest of your estate, or you might want to choose someone who is more tech-savvy. Talk to the person first to ensure they’re willing and then let them know how to access the documents they’ll need, says Jason Largey, senior estate planning strategist at Personal Capital in Denver.

Your digital executor should be named in your will or living trust, estate planning experts say. Depending on state law, your attorney may need to add additional language to your documents to address the disposition of your digital assets.

Set a date to review your plan

Tech evolves fast. Remember floppy disks and Myspace? If not, consider that 10 years ago, nobody had an iPad or an Instagram account. Meanwhile, biometrics, including fingerprint scans and facial recognition, are already replacing passwords and other login credentials.

Your digital assets, and how you access them, are likely to change even faster than your financial and physical property, Prangley says. She makes it a point to review and update her digital estate plan annually, at the same time she’s updating her passwords.

“It's something I do like spring cleaning, once a year,” she says.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.