How to Pass Off Passwords When You Pass On

Estate planning attorneys in California often include digital assets in documents

Glendale estate planning attorney Arminé Bazikyan recalls a case that made headlines in 2004. After a U.S. Marine was killed in Fallujah, his father tried to access his Yahoo email account to create a memorial book but ran into a virtual brick wall.

“Yahoo’s terms of service basically denied access to anyone other than the Marine who signed the terms of service,” says Bazikyan.

From Facebook to Imgur, digital services have exploded this century, but most of us don’t consider what happens with our online accounts when we die—much less the consequences of clicking through all that fine print when opening a new one. Terms of service (TOS) often give online providers permission to freeze or close accounts and delete stored emails and blog posts after we’re gone.

It’s not enough to leave passwords and usernames in a safe place for heirs to find, attorneys say. The best way to make sure your loved ones can legally access the information is to say so in your will and other estate planning documents.

In fact, if a widow uses her husband’s passwords without written authorization, she may be breaking the law. Michael Rosen-Prinz, an estate planning partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Los Angeles, says that people erroneously think that “just by being named as an executor or a successor trustee of a revocable trust, that person has the absolute guarantee of access to [digital] information.”

Photographs, videos and Facebook profiles are irreplaceable. Money is another matter entirely. Inaccessible blockchain tokens, like those stored in cryptocurrency wallets, can pose tremendous headaches for heirs.

Then there’s the risk of hacking and identity fraud if old accounts are left untended. “There have been uncomfortable instances where someone’s dead grandfather sends them an advertisement for herbal Viagra,” says Rosen-Prinz. “It’s shocking. It feels like a violation.”

Simply including specific language in your will about the transfer of digital assets can help loved ones avoid such hassles, attorneys say. Maintain a running list of accounts or sign up for a service that consolidates passwords into one, and leave it with the authorized heir.

A 2017 state law further addresses these challenges. The California Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act gives an executor or other appointed fiduciary the legal right to handle a deceased family member’s digital footprint and close accounts—if that person was authorized by the deceased person to do so through an electronic account setting or estate planning document.

A few services, too, now offer online tools that simplify the process. With Google, the Inactive Account Manager can alert a trusted third party and hand over control after a set period of inactivity. Facebook’s Legacy Contact allows a user to designate a Facebook friend who can make limited posts on the deceased’s page.

Both tools can also block access to private accounts a user doesn’t want the heirs to see. “A good estate planner will explain to the client what the rules are,” says Rosen-Prinz.

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of estate planning, wills, trusts, and probate and estate administration.

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