Planning for the Digital Afterlife

Candlelight Vigil 6 by B. W. Townsend from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Candlelight Vigil 6 by B. W. Townsend from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Your accounts on websites and social media platforms, website domains, and all the content you post are your property, and therefore part of your estate.  When you pass away, your estate plan determines who will inherit your possession, including your property online. When you write your will, make sure it includes information about who will own your online content when you die.

Copyright Ownership
Under the U.S. Copyright Act, you are the copyright owner in any original works you create the moment they are “fixed” in any tangible medium (including digital files). This includes the photos and videos that you take post on social media and the content you create and post on your websites. For any individual, the copyright in each work does not expire until 70 years after you die. It’s important to designate who will be the copyright owner for your content.

Maintain Accounts
You may have accounts that require payment to maintain them – such as your web domains. Your accounts could be disabled or delete if they are not maintained, meaning the content could be lost if someone doesn’t continue to pay your domain, hosting, and account fees. If you want a website to live on after you pass away, include instructions and money for doing so.

For your other social media accounts, check with each site’s terms of service about what happens to an account when a user passes away. There may be processes in place to transition your account into a memorial page and/or transfer control to your loved ones.

Settling your Online Affairs
When you create an estate plan, you designate an executor or personal representative for your estate who is responsible for settling your affairs. Consider designating a representative to oversee you online affairs. Provide a list of your online property and instructions regarding what should happen to it. You may also want to give this person instructions regarding the files on your computer, in your phone, or in the cloud.

You may select one person as your regular personal representative and a tech savvy friend to address your online affairs. Your online executor may need access to your passwords to your computer, phone, and for each account. (This is when using a password storage system like LastPass is handy.) Your online executor is also the best person to clear your browser history, delete images from your machine, and possibly remove items from your home that you don’t want your family to see.

Dying Without a Will
If you die without an estate plan (aka die intestate), you’ll have no say over who inherits what from your estate. The court will appoint a personal representative and the laws of your state will determine who inherits your estate. In Arizona, if you die without a will, your spouse inherits your estate. If you don’t have a spouse, your children inherit your estate. If you don’t have a spouse or children, your parents inherit if they are living, otherwise your property goes to your then-living siblings. If you are an entrepreneur, you should also be aware of what happens to your LLC when you die.

If you want to talk with me about who owns your online content now and in the afterlife, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content, entrepreneurial tips, and rants that are available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

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