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A Guide to Managing a Deceased Loved One’s Digital Footprint

Many adults do not have a will, let alone an estate plan addressing their online profiles. As your online presence grows professionally and personally, taking charge of your digital assets and plans for them after you die becomes important. Some social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter provide users with options to nominate someone to look after their social media pages upon their death. Still, many digital assets of individuals without an estate plan will remain active until loved ones close the accounts.

What is a Digital Footprint?

A digital footprint is the record or trail of data from a person’s online activity. This online activity can include any information shared, created, or collected online. The following are some examples:

  • Email Addresses – Including work and personal email addresses
  • Social Media – Posts, likes, comments, shares, and messages on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, and others
  • Communication Apps – WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, WeChat, and more
  • Websites and Blogs – Business or personal websites and licensed domain names
  • Financial Services – Banking, retirement accounts, trading, cryptocurrency, PayPal, Venmo, etc
  • Online Shopping – Amazon, Etsy, eBay, Craigslist
  • Online Searches – Data generated via online searches, including search terms used, websites visited, and time spent on each site
  • Online Profiles – Listservs and dating profiles as examples
  • Health and Medical Accounts – Online medical and health insurance records
  • Entertainment – Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Cable TV, Sling and more
  • Music, Photos, Books – iTunes, Spotify, Shutterfly, Kindle
  • Travel – Airline and car rental apps, Expedia, Airbnb, Uber
  • Geolocation – Location data generated by mobile devices, such as GPS data, WiFi signals, and cell tower data

Absent an Estate Plan, Where Do You Start?

Handling a loved one’s digital footprint after they die can be a difficult and emotional task. Specific steps are needed to assess the accounts.

The first step is to find out what online accounts your loved one had and gather any usernames, passwords, and other information to access them. You may need to check their computer files, emails, or other documents to locate this information.

Once you have a scope of all online activity, contact the service providers for any online accounts your loved one had and notify them of their death. They may require a death certificate or other documentation to close or transfer the accounts.

Deciding What to Do With The Accounts

Depending on the terms of service for the online accounts, you may be able to close or delete them, or you may be able to transfer them to a family member or beneficiary. Some accounts may also have options for memorializing the account, allowing others to view the content without making changes.

If your loved one had digital assets such as photos, videos, or documents, you might want to back up the content and store them securely. This action can help prevent them from being lost or deleted, allowing family members to access and preserve them.

Estate Planning Attorneys Specializing in Digital Assets Can Help

The process of securing or closing the digital footprint of a loved one can be overwhelming. Estate planning attorneys can provide legal guidance on issues relating to digital assets, such as privacy laws, intellectual property laws, and cybersecurity laws. They can also help you navigate any disputes relating to these digital assets.

An estate planning lawyer can help by:

  • Identifying and inventorying digital assets – An attorney can help inventory your loved one’s digital assets.
  • Determining ownership and access – A lawyer can help determine ownership of the digital assets and whether access is allowed under applicable laws and terms of service agreements. They can also guide you on accessing digital assets that are password protected or encrypted.
  • Creating a plan for the digital assets – Your attorney may designate beneficiaries or create a trust for digital assets. They can also help identify which digital assets can be deleted or closed and which may be valuable and should be preserved.
  • Working with service providers – A lawyer can work with service providers to transfer ownership or close accounts. They can assist with obtaining copies of digital content, like photos or videos that may be valuable or sentimental.

An estate planning attorney can also help prepare families with a digital estate plan that will spare their loved ones the challenge of identifying, memorializing, or closing many online accounts. Additionally, having a digital estate plan can prevent post-mortem identity theft.

Providing instructions to Loved Ones Regarding Digital Assets

Making decisions about a loved one’s digital assets and accounts can be very difficult if they have not left instructions to follow. For some people, it’s useful to have reminders of their departed loved one. Others may prefer to close all accounts for various reasons. For those who lack online literacy, closing digital accounts can be beyond their capabilities.

Seeking the services of an estate planning attorney specializing in digital assets can reduce the complexities of identifying and preserving a deceased loved one’s online accounts and the likelihood of overlooking valuable assets in the online world. Contact our Chicago area office at 630-568-6656 to discuss how we can help you with any legal questions you may have. We look forward to the opportunity to work with you.

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