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Dead and online: What happens to your digital estate when you die?

July 12, 2014 at 11:00 AM EDT
There are nearly four billion registered e-mail accounts and more than one billion Facebook accounts worldwide. But what happens to all of that online information after we're gone? Entrepreneurs and legislative groups are trying to offer solutions and build awareness of the complications surrounding digital estate planning after death. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Do you have an email account? How about a Facebook page? Bank online? Shop online? Pay your gas, light, or cable TV bill over the internet?

I’ve just laid out more than a half-dozen accounts that many of us have, likely each with its own password.

These accounts don’t die with us. The passwords to each of them are oftentimes locked away with only one person — the deceased. Which means that valuable online assets could be lost forever — or be found by those looking to exploit them.

Take the case of Glenn Williamson, a tech entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon. Two years ago, he got the worst news possible.

GLENN WILLIAMSON: I was in the Philippines speaking at a conference and, you know, when your phone goes off 15 times and it’s 3:00 in the morning in the United States, you have a bad feeling. You know it’s not a good call.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Glenn’s 73-year-old mother Lee had died. As her fiduciary and as a 25-year veteran of the tech world, it fell to him to manage her online accounts.

GLENN WILLIAMSON: I knew my mom, being a cool grandma, was on Twitter. So, I knew she was on Twitter and I knew she had a Yahoo account, so we had a baseline to start, but that’s all we knew.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After 20 hours of searching, Glenn found 13 different accounts belonging to his mother, including email, social media and shopping accounts.

GLENN WILLIAMSON: So we broke it down into categories: travel, sentimental value, security, and basically we searched on about 75 different sites

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some had real value.

GLENN WILLIAMSON: We got to United, and United did indeed have my mom as a customer and there was 54,000 miles that we were able to retrieve for our family.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All this while he was grieving.

GLENN WILLIAMSON: And it’s a painful, it’s a long process, and everybody means well, but if one more person tells you they’re sorry—it’s like, okay, I just need to know, did she have an account or not.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Williamson and his wife are online savvy, relatively young and it was still tough to find all those accounts.

GLENN WILLIAMSON: So, the average person, especially if the average person is doing it in their 60s, it’s a very, very difficult process.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Glenn’s problems managing his mother’s online estate helped inspire him to start a business solution called “WebCease” — an online service that helps people search for their deceased loved ones’ digital assets.

It uses a person’s basic information — like an email address — and finds the major online accounts that are linked to it. And although WebCease won’t shut down an account for you, it will tell you what can be done under a website’s specific terms-of-service.

GLENN WILLIAMSON: My mom had an asset inventory of her financial accounts. But she didn’t have an asset inventory of all things digital, and that’s really what we provide to the family, is we provide them at — a high level — a digital asset inventory. So, you can look through it and say, “Oh, my mom was on Amazon and she had iTunes and Marriott and Hyatt, et cetera.” So, that’s really the value we provide.

HARI SREENIVASAN: WebCease is one of a handful of websites that has sprung up over the last few years—sites like Navigatr, the Doc Safe, Capsoole, My Cyber safe, and Afternote—all of them trying to tackle what is becoming an increasingly common problem.

SUZANNE WALSH: Nowadays, everyone keeps their filing cabinets on their computers and they may not have shared the access to that with their families.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Suzanne Walsh is an estate lawyer in West Hartford, Connecticut.

SUZANNE WALSH: I have received panicked calls from family members who don’t know passwords, don’t know the nature of the online accounts. They simply know mom paid the bills online and they may not even be sure about the bank.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Walsh says that the main problem is one of access. In many cases, we have made it virtually illegal for anyone else to use our online accounts.

It starts with those terms-of-service agreements; the fine print of the online world. Once the “I agree” button is pressed, it’s as good as a contract.

SUZANNE WALSH: Many of them prohibit the sharing of passwords and they prohibit third-party access. So, right now, they tend to bar anybody but the account holder accessing the account.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That means even if the account-holder is dead.

Internet service providers say they’re following the letter of the law as spelled out in the 1986 Stored Communications Act, which prohibits anyone from accessing private information online without permission.

SUZANNE WALSH: The problem with fiduciary access now is that it may be a violation of federal privacy law or a computer fraud and abuse act. It may be an actual criminal act to violate the terms of service agreement.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But being unable to access or shut down a deceased loved one’s accounts could have unforeseen risks, as Glenn Williamson—who spent 20 years in online security—will tell you.

GLENN WILLIAMSON: The year after somebody passes is one of the most vulnerable times for identity theft. It’s a heinous crime, but what the bad guys do, because death is public record, they’ll go out there and they’ll comb through recently deceased and they’ll create a fake identity, because the deceased don’t check email and they don’t get the mail.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Every year, more than 2 million Americans are the posthumous victims of identity fraud.
Thieves can use a dead person’s information to rack up credit card charges, apply for loans, or even file false tax returns.

And much of this information can be found on the internet through something as simple as a shopping account.

To date, only seven states have any laws on the books governing online estate planning.

Suzanne Walsh, who chairs a committee on the Uniform Law Commission—an organization which drafts laws which it hopes to standardize in all 50 states—is hoping to change that.

Over the past two years, Walsh’s committee has been drafting the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which would give fiduciaries the same rights over online estates as they now have over physical estates.

SUZANNE WALSH: Fiduciaries, traditionally, have access to everything in admin—especially in administering estates. And that used to mean opening up the mailbox, opening up the file cabinet, rifling through the desk. Our act is designed to continue that and facilitate that, given the different nature of the digital assets.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The bill is currently being reviewed by the Uniform Law Commission and will be voted on for approval on Wednesday. After that, it will be up to the state legislatures to propose it. On average, current acts that have been approved by the ULC have achieved enactment in a little more than twenty different states and territories. But Suzanne Walsh is hopeful that her committee’s proposed legislation will be more widely received.

SUZANNE WALSH: Widespread enactment is our goal. That’s our primary goal. Certainly we hope and expect that it won’t take more than a year or two for most of the states to adopt this product.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For now, there are steps that people can take now to make the process of digital estate management easier on next of kin.

First, create an inventory list of all your online accounts and passwords for your fiduciary. Stipulate what to do with your email accounts in a will, and read the terms-of-service agreements, so you can understand how or even if access to your accounts can be granted to someone else.

But Glenn Williamson says, no matter what steps you take or what laws are eventually passed, managing a digital estate for a loved one will always be a long, arduous, and painful process.