Our readers may have heard the buzz about digital assets in estate planning. The idea is pretty simple: because more and more people are dying with significant digital assets to their name, more people need to be thinking about how their digital assets will be disposed after their death and taking the necessary steps.
Take e-mail accounts, for example. Almost everybody has at least one e-mail account. For many people, e-mail accounts are a significant avenue of business as well as personal information. This information is sometimes necessary for the estate administrator to have access to. Because most states do not have any laws governing who has access rights to e-mail accounts when the account owner dies, families usually have to work things out with the e-mail provider.
In some cases, e-mail providers are not willing to work with family. Some more progressive providers have recognized the problem and taken steps to remedy it. Google, for example, allows account holders to name one or more individuals who will receive their data in the event they become incapacitated or die. Other providers have yet to adopt this approach.
When family members are unable to guess an individual's password, they may have to resort to legal action. This isn't ideal, given the time and money costs, but in some cases it is the only option.
Hopefully, more e-mail providers will adopt policies that allow account holders to address this issue before they die. Until that happens, a good option is to share your password with a trusted individual, perhaps by signing a durable power-of-attorney form. While this may present privacy issues, it isn't likely that e-mail providers will monitor who is accessing the account.
Source: Forbes, "When Heirs Must Battle For Access To E-mail Accounts," Deborah Jacobs, December 11, 2013.