Rest in Peace: Controlling your online life after you die

New digital estate planning survey examines digital afterlife services

Washington, DC — Facebook, Twitter, online bill-pay, cloud storage, electronic health records—most of us have amassed dozens of online accounts that contain everything from our personal and business communications to financial activities, photos and music collections. Dozens of services have cropped up to organize users’ online accounts, provide instructions and passwords to survivors, store electronic files and send messages postmortem.

To help consumers determine the fate of their digital assets, Consumer Action has created a free Digital Estate Planning Guide, released today, which reveals findings from a survey of afterlife services and social media policies (Feb. 16-May 4) that offer consumers control of their online life after they die. The research is the focus of the Spring 2015 issue of Consumer Action News, Consumer Action’s free consumer newspaper.

Consumer Action’s Digital Estate Planning Guide reviews 20 digital legacy companies that offer one or more of the following services:

  • Digital estate planning: guidance on how to organize your digital assets (online bank accounts, rewards programs, social media profiles, etc.)
  • Digital lockers: cloud storage services for personal documents, financial records, video files, etc.
  • Postmortem messaging: services to create a final message to be sent after your death to designated recipients
  • Digital assets locator: services that advise families on how and where to locate a deceased’s online accounts

“Digital estate planning services are most helpful in alerting consumers to the importance of organizing your digital assets and instructing loved ones on how to handle your online accounts once you die,” says Linda Sherry, Consumer Action’s director of national priorities. “The cost of not doing so can be legal battles, lost assets, privacy violations or unfulfilled wishes. These may be avoidable—if you understand the issues and the various planning tools available to you.”

The Guide explains how loved ones may access digital accounts, how long information is stored online postmortem and the costs of each service (free to $500).

During its research, Consumer Action discovered that:

  • There is no federal law granting survivorship rights to a decedent’s online accounts and digital assets. Laws in a handful of states (Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Virginia) do offer varying amounts of access to online accounts (email, social media, cloud storage, etc.). Delaware is the only state that provides heirs full access, which is not always considered a good thing.
  • Some of the most popular social media sites and apps have policies that give users some control over what account content may be shared (Microsoft, Google) versus permanently deleted upon death. Consumers may be unaware that these “settings” exist, including the ability to “memorialize” your online account (Facebook, Instagram).

Consumer Action’s Spring 2015 issue of Consumer Action News explains the value of crafting a digital asset plan. The issue includes:

  • Steps for creating your own digital directive
  • Advice on accessing a loved one’s digital estate (including financial assets)
  • Perspectives on account users’ privacy vs. legal access to loved ones’ online accounts

Consumer Action News also offers tips for preparing a digital estate plan:

  • Take the time to create a plan to entrust or delete your digital details.
  • Make your instructions clear, easily accessible and store them safely.
  • Keep contact information for your digital executor current.

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action has been a champion of underrepresented consumers nationwide since 1971. A non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, Consumer Action focuses on consumer education that empowers low- and moderate-income and limited-English-speaking consumers to financially prosper. It also advocates for consumers in the media and before lawmakers to advance consumer rights and promote industry-wide change.

By providing consumer education materials in multiple languages, a free national hotline, a comprehensive website (www.consumer-action.org) and annual surveys of financial and consumer services, Consumer Action helps consumers assert their rights in the marketplace and make financially savvy choices. Nearly 7,500 community and grassroots organizations benefit annually from its extensive outreach programs, training materials and support.

 
 

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