When we think about assets to include in a will people have, for over a hundred years, been concerned about the “big 4” things: house, money, kids, and business. Modern estate planning brings many more concerns, not the least of which are digital assets.
This can encompass many, many things from website ownership or rewards points from loyalty programs through to much more cutting edge digital assets like cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. In most cases though, an email or social media account will be far and away the most common digital asset, full of communications, photos, and memories – many of which we consider more valuable than our simple possessions. And for the most part, people have no idea how those accounts are dealt with after we pass on.
Many of the largest email/storage/social media providers have established policies for this eventuality and I’ve detailed some of them below. This information is current as of August 1, 2017 and should be checked on the services’ sites before making plans regarding these assets.
Gmail/Google: One of Google’s little known features is called “Inactive Account Manager” which grants access to your account to someone that you designate in the event that your account has been inactive for a certain period of time. You get to choose what information they get from Gmail, Drive, Photos, etc. (or if the account should just be deleted) and can customize an email to that person explaining what you want done with the data. If you do not set up the Inactive Account Manager there is a multi-step process that, ultimately, may involve an order from a U.S. based court (as Gmail is located in the US, along with all of the other providers here) but certainly no easy path to accessing that information.
Facebook: Similar to Google, Facebook has a “Legacy Contact” feature where, on proof of death, you can designate another Facebook user to be allowed to either close your account or access a download of the things that you’ve shared within the network. It can be accessed through the general settings link on your profile.
Dropbox: Dropbox is likely the easiest service to access as they have clear procedures for accessing an account. They require that you provide your ID along with, for Manitoba purposes, a grant of probate of a will that specifically grants access to the account to the executor. Interestingly, unlike Google, they do not specify a U.S. court, though they do indicate that even with all documentation they cannot guarantee that they will be able to provide access.
Hotmail/Outlook: Microsoft’s process is more opaque. They will not grant access to the account, nor to any other Microsoft services (like OneDrive) but after a review may be able to provide “contents of a personal email account.” It requires a valid “court order” (which would presumably include a grant of probate) from the “requesting party’s jurisdiction” (such as Manitoba) and as with Dropbox it appears to require specific granting of the information in the will that is probated.
Yahoo Mail and iCloud: Both Yahoo (which also owns the photo site Flickr) and iCloud (which is the umbrella terms for everything Apple related) spell out their policies in their terms of service quite explicitly: all email and storage content, along with purchased apps and music are non-transferable and cannot be released to anyone as a privacy measure. Fortunately, for Apple users, the best way around that is to enable “Family Sharing” which gives people you designate access to your photos and purchases, if nothing else. For their part, Yahoo allows someone to at least close a loved one’s account with sufficient proof of death.
If you are named as someone’s executor and are going to attempt to use procedures like these to access someone’s account after they have passed, it is important to notify the services quickly as, usually, a period of inactivity will lead to a closing and deleting of the account and everything in it.
Ultimately, the easiest, and most sure-fire way to grant access to these accounts after you have passed is to write down the passwords and leave them with your will. It is important to note that, technically, sharing your passwords, even with your executor, is a violation of some website/service’s Terms Of Service, and that there are also risks to writing down passwords and keeping them unsecured. I would suggest that each user has to balance those risks for themselves. More to the point, one of the larger issues here is that it is often not practical to keep passwords written down as passwords, and even accounts, change over time, but if you want to be able to grant your loved ones access to your accounts, it is, in most cases, necessary.
Gerrit Theule is a partner at Wolseley Law LLP and a member of the Manitoba Bar Association’s Wills and Estates Section executive. The information presented in this article is not to be considered legal advice nor fit for any particular purpose. You should consult a lawyer with any questions specific to your situation.