An estimated 79 percent of Americans alive today have a social media account, and about 90 percent of American adults use the Internet. Whether it’s a forum account, a business email address, access to an account at a web hosting service, a Dropbox account, or a Twitter account, most Americans aged 16 and older possess digital assets.
These digital assets shape our online identities but are increasingly a part of who we are. As the Internet and internet-based services continue to meld with society, these digital assets become crucial in interacting with others – and if left unmanaged, they become vulnerable to attacks or theft.
In many cases, these accounts are left in an awkward spot as Internet users begin to pass away, leaving behind several accounts without providing information to family members on how to access them and seek proper closure. It can be difficult to move on from a loved one’s death when their social media accounts and email accounts continue to receive mentions, comments, and other forms of interaction, as though they never truly left.
These simple tips are meant to help today’s Internet users take better care of their digital assets, prevent theft or vulnerability, and ensure that once they’re gone, proper measures are taken to do with their accounts as they see fit – whether that means memorializing them, making backups of them, or deleting them entirely.
Contact an Estate Planner
Today’s estate planning professionals are well-versed in matters of digital estate planning and are prepared to help concerned clients sort out their digital assets and protect them as needed. If you have an estate plan, then it would be ideal to discuss this with your estate planning attorney and consider ways to incorporate instructions into your will or estate plan, to help family members locate sensitive information and properly take care of your digital assets, or store all data offline and close all relevant accounts.
As our presence online continues to grow and become complex, it becomes harder and harder to futureproof things like digital asset protection. Avoid directly mentioning sensitive information in any documents left behind for estate planning, as it is much smarter to regularly change passwords and simply leave behind information for accessing said passwords. Be sure to meet with an estate planning attorney at least once every two to five years to handle digital asset protection and other issues.
Physically Note Your Passwords and Accounts
First, a quick reminder: the best passwords are composed of letters, numbers, and symbols. 16 characters are a good place to start, and the combination should be random enough that it’s nonsensical – nothing too easy, and no direct references to simple English words.
Otherwise, you can use phrases to make passwords that are a bit easier to remember, but you’ll need at least six words and they should make absolutely no grammatical sense. So, nothing like “enjoyingahotcupofblackcoffee”, but more something along the line of “cleftcamsynodlacyyrwok”, as per Diceware.
There’s plenty more information out there on how password cracking software operates and how a good password should be structured, but arguably the most important thing is storing your passwords properly.
It’s one thing to store your passwords in your head – it’s the most secure place to store them – but you quickly run into the problem that, for most people, there’s a hard limit on how many passwords one can remember, especially when they’re meant to be sufficiently complex to stump most cracking software.
Paper is the next best thing. Get a small notebook that you always keep in a safe spot (locked away, or hidden in a special place), and use it as your password notebook. Update it regularly, just as you would your passwords. And remember – never use the same password twice.
The benefit to this, aside from the fact that you don’t have to remember the passwords, is that it’s much easier to pass on access to your digital assets by creating a letter to inform a handful of surviving kin about where your sensitive data is stored. Better yet, let a few trusted family members know where the notebook is before you pass away.
Store Sensitive Data on an External Drive
If you’re not a fan of pen and paper, then there’s only one safe alternative – and it isn’t quite as safe. That’s an encrypted external hard drive. You can use a flash drive too, but those are easier to lose and might tempt you to bring them around, which you really shouldn’t do. Keep an external drive hidden away at home and use it to store sensitive information. Never connect your external drive to a computer you worry might be compromised.
Again, this isn’t as safe as the paper route, but might be more convenient for you. Same as before, your loved ones can simply access the drive to take care of your digital assets, as per your instructions. Speaking of:
Prepare a Letter of Instruction
Estate planning professionals and estate planning services can help you set up detailed documents to clarify how you would like your surviving kin to manage your digital assets (and other assets), through a living will, last will and testament, and other estate planning tools. A side letter of instruction is among the simplest of these, as it is basically a letter detailing everything your loved ones, your attorney, and your executor would need to know about financial and sensitive data, such as account access.
Note that, when a person passes away, their family does not have a legal right over their accounts and digital assets. This can get especially complicated with matters such as business email accounts. A family can request that a decedent’s account be closed after they have passed away (and some services, like Facebook, offer memorialization). It is in a company’s best interest to protect their user’s privacy, even when they have passed away. As such, a company is unlikely to give surviving members of the family access to a decedent’s account without proof that that was the decedent’s wish.
Companies have different policies on what surviving family members may and may not do when accessing a deceased loved one’s account. Some companies, like Dropbox, carefully review whether family members can access a loved one’s account if they lack proper access, and require proof that it was the decedent’s intent to provide access after passing away.
Safeguarding Your Digital Assets
Having a total overview of your digital assets is the most important step in securing them for the future. An estate planning professional can help you figure out how best to assign the responsibility of digital asset protection to your family, depending on the kinds of data you keep and the different accounts you possess.