Getting Comfortable With Estate Planning Terminology
Two ElderLawAnswers member attorneys offer concise definitions of common estate planning terms.Read more
More and more, we are conducting our business on the Internet, whether that's online banking, shopping at Amazon and other sites, uploading documents and files to the "cloud," posting videos on YouTube, or communicating with high school classmates via Facebook.
So, what happens to all of our accounts and files when we become incapacitated or pass away? Will our spouses and children have access to them? Where will they find our usernames and passwords? Who can take down our Facebook and LinkedIn pages, or would we prefer that they continue for posterity? And if we've saved photos, videos and other files on the cloud, who should have access to them and how long should they stay out there?
These are questions almost everyone needs to think about today and they often raise difficult security and legal issues. For example, if you become incapacitated and your daughter starts handling your finances online, is she doing so legally? Presumably you've given her your assent to do so, but the bank may not have a durable power of attorney on file with this authorization. As far as the bank knows, you’re still the person logging in and paying your bills or shifting your investments. Is this fraud on the bank? Does anyone care as long as your daughter is acting in your best interest?
And what if you pass away and your child, rather than notifying the financial institutions, continues to pay bills online and make distributions to family members? This is clearly contrary to law, but it could be much more convenient than going through the probate process. Is it an instance of no harm, no foul?
States are beginning to grapple with these issues. A few states have enacted laws giving executors access to online accounts. In addition, every Internet provider has its own rules about access to user accounts, and generally users have agreed to these rules when they first enrolled, whether they actually read the service agreement or not. In April 2013, Google introduced the concept of an Inactive Account Manager who Google users can name to receive notice when a Google user has not accessed her account for a long period of time. The Inactive Account Manager has access to Google accounts designated by the user and can take whatever action is necessary to access them or shut them down.
The legalities aside, here are some steps we can all take to better manage our digital assets:
Unfortunately, as the Internet makes our lives easier and quicker, it also makes them more complicated. We all need to take steps to make sure that our loved ones have the necessary access when access becomes necessary.