Digital estate planning – don’t let your passwords die with you

Apr 24, 2022
The more information you can leave in an easily accessible format for your Attorney or Executor, the better. Source: Getty

It’s a sign of the times! When planning your Will, don’t forget your digital assets, writes Susan Bonnici, Estate Planning Solicitor at Equity Trustees.

You might not have a TikTok account, but most of us have accumulated a huge amount of digital information that’s stored either on personal devices or on a third party’s server. This data can be of significant value, either financial or sentimental, and needs to be considered as part of your estate planning.

While we’re busy expanding our digital footprint via online banks, social media, subscriptions, online share trading and email newsletters where we sign up to get that discount on our purchase. With all these alleys, it’s easy to lose track of the number of passwords and logins we’re collecting along the way.

For many of us, it’s hard enough remembering all this online activity for the various sites, let alone thinking about what might happen to our digital assets and accounts in the event of an accident or death, or becoming temporarily or permanently incapacitated.

However, there are steps you can take to document your online activity so that your Attorney or Executor will have the access they need to manage your digital accounts on your behalf if they need to, and in the case of an Executor, it’s not if, but when.

List everything down

As a starting point, make a list of all the online accounts your Attorney or Executor should be aware of. This may include bank accounts, superannuation, insurance, investments such as share trading platforms or cryptocurrencies, utilities, memberships and subscriptions. That way they at least know where to start looking.

And don’t just think about the obvious information. Aim to record everything that would need to be actioned or cancelled, from direct debits to Amazon, Uber, and music and TV streaming accounts as some of these accounts will continue to charge fees until they are cancelled – and this can add up!

Don’t be surprised if it takes you a few weeks to get this list together – just keep careful track of every website or account you sign in to and add it to the list as you go.

Doing nothing can mean chaos

It’s easy to procrastinate – there’s a reason there are so many self-help books and apps about it. Mostly we do it because we either don’t want to think about our own demise, or we’re just put off by the time and effort involved in organising it all. It can be overwhelming to consider all the places your passwords are recorded or trying to recover those important login details you’ve forgotten or misplaced.

Whatever your reservations it’s important to make it a priority because doing nothing can cause a lot of cost, confusion, angst and wasted time for the people who may need to access this information to act on your wishes. The more information you can leave in an easily accessible format for your Attorney or Executor, the better. Armed with the correct information, they will be able to act swiftly to ensure that your digital assets are dealt with appropriately and that your estate doesn’t incur any unnecessary expenses.

Taking action will help peace of mind

The law in Australia is still adapting to deal with the ownership and transfer of digital information. It is a very complex and evolving area of law. Your online activity is usually governed by a combination of local laws and the terms of the contract you enter into with the company you’re engaging with. This is often further complicated by the fact that many of the companies managing our digital assets are based overseas and are governed by foreign laws.

Who can legally access our digital records, and in what circumstances, is being reviewed in Australia. In New South Wales, for example, proposals have been made to change current laws to allow an authorised person to access your records if you die or are incapacitated. However, this is still very new as far as the law is concerned, and every provider is different! Some providers, such as Google and Facebook, will allow you to appoint an account trustee to download some of your account content if it’s deemed inactive for a certain amount of time.

Facebook also has the option of memorialising your site after you die if you wish. But if you don’t want all those photos, comments and conversations lasting for all eternity, then you may want to make a note in your Will for your family to delete it completely. The same goes for other social media accounts.

To save your family from going through the pain and hassle of having to give a corporation like Google, your name, address, photo ID, email and death certificate, to access your account, you might consider sharing your password with someone you trust so they do what you would have wanted.

You might also like to consider appointing a “digital Executor” in your Will – someone who can be responsible for accessing monitoring and deleting, where appropriate, any digital assets and records, for example personal messages, information, even pictures. So, when you’re taking steps to put together your list of usernames and passwords, also include instructions on how you want them managed.

There are a few options to keep this information safe:

  1. Keep the list in a safe place or safety deposit box and let your family know.
  2. Checkout an online password manager such as Lastpass or NordPass.
  3. Speak to a Wills and Estate Planning specialist who can give you tailored advice. Once you have documented everything, you will benefit from the peace of mind, knowing your affairs and loved ones will be taken care of when you are gone.
  4. Equity Trustees is a specialist in wills and estate planning, developed on a foundation of more than 130 years of experience. More information about Equity Trustees’ wills and estate planning services is available on our website.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your financial or legal situation, objectives or needs. That means it’s not financial product or legal advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a financial or legal decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get independent, licensed financial services or legal advice.

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