Who will have authority to access or manage your digital assets after you die? In the District of Columbia, no one will – not even your executor. the District of Columbia’s laws do not give a executor any power to access online accounts – even to shut them down. When you die, your online presence will continue on without you, and – unless you leave your executor password and login information -- there will be little that your executor can do to get into your accounts or files.
“Digital assets” are any digital record that you own or have control over. This includes email accounts, blogs, social media accounts, financial accounts, digital files (music, photos, movies), apps, or any other online or digital account or file. Your access to these accounts or files is usually limited by the “terms of service” that you agree to when creating an account or buying or licensing a product online.
In the District of Columbia, what happens to your digital assets depends on whether you’ve made a plan. District of Columbia law gives your executor no authority to access your digital assets. So unless you leave your loved ones a list of your accounts, instructions about how to access them, and guidance about what to do with them, your digital assets will continue to exist, but nobody will be able to access, modify or delete them. Most accounts and files will just continue untouched until the company that manages them terminates the account, at which point all data will be lost.
This inability for anyone to access your accounts is disconcerting because your executor may need access your digital assets to 1) officially wrap up your affairs, and 2) follow your instructions about what to do with your digital accounts and files.
Read more about Why Your Executor Needs Access to Your Digital Assets.
Because the District of Columbia does not grant executors the authority to access digital accounts, the only way to be sure that anyone will be able to get in to your accounts after your die is to very clearly leave instructions and access information for the person who will be wrapping up your affairs. Leave a list of your accounts with user names and passwords and explain what you want done with each one. That way, even though the District of Columbia does not give your executor the authority to access your accounts, he or she will be able to get in and make the changes that you request. You can leave this information in a letter to be found after you die. Just keep the letter in a secure place, make sure that your executor knows where to find it, and remember to keep it up to date.
Although the District of Columbia doesn’t grant authority to your executor to access your digital assets, that is likely to change soon. Lawmakers are finally catching up with the digital age, realizing that executors need access to digital assets to wrap up a deceased person’s estate. A handful of states have laws that provide this authority, and many more are considering adding it to their statutes. the District of Columbia is sure to follow.
But even if the District of Columbia passes a law providing this authority, it will still be a daunting task for your executor to get the right to access each of your accounts and files. Even with legal authority, it will be much less burdensome, if you simply leave access information and instructions for the person who will wrap up your estate. That way, your executor can just go into the accounts and do the job, without having to ask for permission.
Maybe you don’t want anyone going into your accounts after you die, not even the people most close to you. That certainly seems like a reasonable request – if they the accounts and files are private in life, shouldn’t they be private in death? In fact, internet companies argue this very point – that they should not provide survivors with access to accounts because it would violate the privacy of the deceased person. In contrast, the law that many states are likely to adopt gives executors very broad access to a deceased person’s accounts, with the idea that digital assets are just like assets that you leave in your desk drawer. The new laws basically make all of your digital assets available to your executor to sort through after you die. This certainly raises privacy concerns.
However, because executors do not yet have authority to access your digital accounts and files in the District of Columbia, the best way to keep your survivors out of your digital business is to simply not provide them with any way to access your accounts or files. Make your account names and passwords difficult to guess, so that even someone who knows you well would be stumped. If you want to further ensure your privacy after your death, see a lawyer for help.