Inheriting the Internet12/27/2022
Can you inherit the internet? This question makes more sense than many realize. We create digital assets as we use social media and take part in other online activities. Photos, discussions, documents, and more may have value after we are gone. The real question is, who owns these assets?
Many think a family photo they took and posted online is theirs; they own it. Not so fast. Most online companies' terms of service state they own all assets posted on their service. Yes, you can delete them, but a copy may remain on their servers. The same is true for documents. If you use an online service to write a letter to your wife, the service may own the letter. As odd as that seems, it begs the question, what happens to these assets when we die?
After death, our digital legacies are subject to the terms and services of the entities you accessed while online. The laws of the states in which these companies reside will also play a role. Your state may also have laws affecting your digital content. Why does it matter? Documents could be held as virtual hostages while family members struggle to gain access. Files could be altered and used to torment or harass others (think photoshopped photos or altered documents). What about identity theft?
Each year over 2 million deceased Americans are subject to identity theft. Social media accounts will often unwittingly provide much of the information fraudsters need to pull off identity theft. A fraudulent identity may be created by gathering digital content from sources previously used by a deceased person. Deceased people cannot check their credit, and sadly most beneficiaries never think to monitor the accounts of their loved ones. Notifying credit bureaus of a death can reduce the likelihood of identity theft.
The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) offers some protection. The UFADAA allows internet users to designate and control the disposition of digital assets, the same as tangible property. Fiduciaries such as executors, trustees, or power of attorney may manage digital assets like virtual currency, websites, files, and more. Fiduciaries may be restricted from accessing Email, text messages, and social media accounts unless the owner designated access in a will, trust, or another record. Check if your state has adopted UFADAA at the National Conference of State Legislatures .
If a wife gives a husband access to her password manager, can he access her online accounts if she is deceased? In many instances, this is against the law. Or at least breaches the terms of service agreement for many companies. Although technically illegal or against the rules, this is probably much more common than companies wish to admit. A spouse or loved one may act thinking they are doing the right thing, but how does it affect others? How does it affect the online service? What if one of the items affected is a digital will? There are no easy answers.
Companies like SecureSafe and octowill offer data inheritance services that may provide assistance. Regardless of how you address the problem, it is clear that a plan is better than no plan at all. A codicil to an existing will may allow a spouse to transfer digital assets along with real; and personal property. A digital will may help. Check with your attorney for more specific information.