What Happens to My Online Accounts When I Die?

Written by

Amber Hoffart

Digital assets after death

Did you know the average person under 70 years old has more than 160 digital accounts? With our digital footprints constantly increasing, it's important to know what happens to our digital assets after death and how to protect them before that.

You may be wondering what exactly "digital assets" are. Digital assets include but are not limited to your Amazon Prime, email, banking, social networking, and file-sharing accounts such as Dropbox. Digital assets also include your photos, videos, and files as well.

Some of your digital assets have financial value, such as your bank account and cryptocurrency holdings. Other digital assets have intangible, sentimental value that is often overlooked, such as photos and videos on your laptop, iCloud, Google Drive, and social media accounts. Further, digital assets store private and confidential information that others should be prevented from seeing, such as your email or private messaging on Facebook.

The dangers of not planning your digital legacy

There are several dangers and challenges posed if you don't plan to transfer ownership of your digital assets. Identity theft is a significant issue, with an estimated 20 people having their identity stolen through online hacking every minute worldwide. The risk of identity theft dramatically increases if you pass away and no one is actively monitoring your accounts for hackers.

Making things more complicated are user agreements entered into when creating an account. These agreements determine digital asset holders' rights (aka those policies we never really read). These agreements typically restrict the rights of user account access upon death. They can also force the executor of your estate into court battles to gain access to your accounts. Some account licenses even end upon death, such as Kindle titles and Spotify access.

Digital Asset Management is a relatively new and rapidly evolving space in the legal world, still with its fair share of grey areas. In addition to individual user agreements, there are also updates to provincial laws to address digital assets.

The Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act was adopted by the Uniform Law Conference of Canada in 2016. Some provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta have enacted and revised legislation based on the above Act. This Act aids in helping the executor of an estate gain access to electronic records of the deceased.

How to plan your digital legacy

Digital legacy experts' biggest piece of advice is not to wait to get your digital affairs in order. Make it a part of your financial housekeeping as soon as you can! An easy first step is to make an inventory of your digital assets, online accounts, and passwords to provide to your executor, personal representative, guardian, or attorney. Along with this, give any specific instructions you have on how to deal with certain digital assets. Understanding how your digital legacy plans fit into your overall estate plan is essential, so talking to your lawyer about this matter is recommended. 

It is also helpful to know the variation of rules in user agreements for different websites. For instance, Google users can select an executor in their account that has access when the account is inactive for a period of time using the Inactive Account Manager. Facebook and Instagram allow for memorialized pages that can still be viewed and interacted with upon death, and a legacy contact can be chosen in advance to manage this. Apple will allow access to an Apple ID only if access is granted through a person's will or court order.

It is vital to note that all assets remain even after death for all cryptocurrencies and to access those assets, a private key must be used. Ensuring that this private key is in the hands of someone trusted is crucial, as all cryptocurrency will be lost if someone dies and does not provide the key to anyone else.

In conclusion, think about how best to manage your online information and passwords so that your executor can access your digital assets after your death. It may be helpful to use a secure spreadsheet or even share access to an online password manager.  If you have social media accounts, consider downloading all your photos and videos and sharing them with your loved ones or executor via cloud sharing or an external hard drive/memory stick. If you want more detailed information about the legal details of your digital legacy, it is advised to reach out to your lawyer.