The internet is part of our daily lives. We stay in touch with friends and family through Facebook. We maintain professional connections and search for new jobs via LinkedIn. No one writes letters anymore. We e-mail. We monitor and balance bank accounts online. Business owners buy internet domain names instead of phone book and billboard space.
What happens to your online property when you die?
Colorado currently has no specific law in place to deal with digital assets. Only a handful of states do and their laws are just being tested. For example, Idaho allows your personal representative to “[t]ake control of, conduct, continue or terminate any accounts of the decedent on any social networking website, any micro blogging or short message service website or email service.” Idaho Code Ann. § 15-3-715 (2012). A group of lawyers within the Uniform Law Commission is currently working to draft a model law which other states can adopt.
Digital assets are governed by contracts (often called your “User Agreement” or “Terms of Service”) which vary from provider to provider. They typically protect privacy and prohibit or limit access to third parties. Without some mechanism in place, family may need to get a court order to access a loved one’s account.
E-Mail. Accounts are handled differently by each provider. Yahoo! has the strictest confidentiality policy. Yahoo! lets family close your account, but will not give them access. Hotmail lets family access your account with a death certificate and proof of their identity. Hotmail also routinely deletes accounts not accessed for a certain time-period. Gmail lets family access your account with a death certificate, proof of identity, and proof of an e-mail conversation the family member had with you. Gmail does not automatically delete accounts, but will allow family to do so after they gain access.
Business Assets. In the past, businesses relied on traditional marketing, such as yellow pages advertisements and billboards. Modern businesses increasingly invest more heavily in internet marketing. Internet domain names are valuable business assets and ownership needs to be renewed periodically. Similarly, webhosting services must also be renewed on a regular basis, or a company’s website will go down.
Social Media. Facebook is the most commonly used social media site and accounts can be memorialized or deactivated. Family or friends must fill out a form and provide confirmation of death. Once that is done, Facebook will take the user out of public search results, seal the account from future login attempts, and leave the wall open for friends to post memories about the person. Other social media providers, such as LinkedIn and Twitter have their own guidelines.
Loved ones often look to e-mail and social media history for comfort or understanding after you die. (E.g., a Wisconsin couple looking for closure had to obtain court orders to see the content of their 21-year-old son’s Facebook and Gmail accounts after he committed suicide.) Your estate plan should address whom you want to have access to these private communications. A business which relies heavily on internet marketing should address, in its business succession plan, ownership of its domain names and continuation of its webhosting services.
What do you want to happen to your online property when you die? Call our Denver estate planning attorneys at (303) 991-4676 today to discuss the best solution for your circumstances.