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Your three-step estate plan for your virtual life.

What About Your Digital legacy?

How to plan for what will happen to all your online accounts after you’ve gone.

With social media, email and online shopping and banking fundamental to our daily routines, most of us live active online lives these days, for both business and fun. Our business communications are increasingly by email. We pay our bills and manage our bank accounts online. We purchase digital books and music. We store our precious photos in the Cloud. We keep in touch with friends and family through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp.

The law surrounding Wills was of course invented long before the internet, and it hasn’t really kept pace with the way our lives have evolved. In our Wills, we tend to focus on the tangibles, our personal belongings, our money and our land. But that leaves our digital lives overlooked. In any event, many digital items can’t be left in our Wills because they don't really belong to us. Rather than owning them, we just have licenses to view, read or listen to them. Even email and social media accounts aren’t really ours but are owned and controlled by the tech companies involved. It’s an odd thought, but your Facebook profile probably belongs to Mark Zuckerberg!

In a recent article, I mentioned the experience of my friend Simon, a successful web designer who was struck down out of the blue with a near-fatal heart attack and spent weeks in a coma. Pretty much his entire life, both professional and personal, was stored on his laptop and smartphone. With no record of his passwords, his family were unable to access his devices and online accounts to help manage his affairs while he was unconscious in intensive care. Unfortunately, a sibling with a little IT knowledge tried various “clever” ways of getting past Simon’s online security arrangements and succeeded only in doing substantial damage to the devices, which, once he had recovered, Simon really struggled to repair.

So, it’s sensible, when making your estate plan, to consider the parallel, digital legacy you’ll be leaving behind, and make it as easy as possible for your nearest and dearest to handle that part of your life after you’re gone.   Here’s how to go about it:

Step One: List your Online Accounts

This may be a time-consuming chore, but it’s worth doing. Sit down when you have a quiet hour and make a list of all your key online accounts, noting your username, password and other essential login information. To start you off, here’s a list of the most obvious items to consider:

  • The passwords or pin numbers to access your computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone;
  • All your email accounts – it’s surprising how many email accounts you inadvertently end up running, between Gmail, iCloud, Outlook and other providers;
  • Your current account, savings accounts and investment accounts;
  • Your utility accounts, including gas, water, electricity, telecoms & broadband and even your local authority council tax login;
  • Your home, car and life insurance;
  • Your mortgage;
  • Your social media accounts, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn;
  • Music, photos and books stored online;
  • Your online shopping accounts such as Amazon, eBay – not forgetting your sellers’ accounts if you sell items online;
  • If you have a business, remember to list the logins for your work IT system, Website, blog, any domain names, and your Government Gateway logins.

Step Two: Plan What Should Happen to Those Accounts If Something Happens to You

Do you want someone special to have access to your books, music and photos?

Are there emails you would like saved and printed? Would you like our email folders emptied? Do you want an automatic notification to be set, to reply to incoming emails?

What about your social media pages: do you want them deleted or would you like them to be converted into “memorial” pages? Do you want a final status update posted in the event of your death?

Write down clear instructions, so that your choices can be implemented. Keep this in a safe and private place along with your list of login details.

Step Three: Choose your “Digital Executor”

You need to choose somebody you can trust to take responsibility for carrying out your instructions competently. It doesn't have to be the Executor of your Will, because your Will isn't going to deal with your digital legacy. But, the Executor of your Will should be the most competent and trustworthy person you know, so they may in turn be ideal for the parallel role of “digital executor”.

Whoever you choose, you need to tell them where you have kept the list of usernames and passwords and your detailed instructions. Or, if you’re tech savvy, you can store your list of logins and the accompanying instructions in a digital vault, leaving your digital executor with the means to get into the vault. More traditionally, you might choose to put your instructions in a sealed envelope and slide it in between the pages of your Will, to be opened in the event of your death.

Your digital legacy is important: make sure your nearest and dearest have the wherewithal to give it the respect it deserves when the time comes.

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