After your death, the person wrapping up your affairs—often an executor—will likely need to access your online accounts and digital assets. For most people, it makes sense to give your executor the broad power to access your accounts and digital files. Below, learn why, as well as how to go about making sure your executor has the access they need.
The person who will wrap up your affairs after you die is often called an executor, but many states also use the term "personal representative" or "estate representative." Your executor will most likely be a person very close to you—like your spouse, parent, or adult child. You can choose your executor by naming someone in your will. But if you don't, the probate court will name one for you.
An executor will have the legal authority to do many traditional tasks, like pay bills, notify beneficiaries of your death, deal with creditors, distribute your property, communicate with the courts, pay taxes, get death certificates, sell your property, and many other duties required to wrap things up. (Learn more about The Executor's Job.)
Being able to access your digital assets will usually make your executor's job a great deal easier, since your executor will be able to see your phone and email contact lists, get into online banking and utilities accounts, and transfer any photos or other digital files as needed. After all, so many of our day-to-day tasks happen online, it makes sense that your executor will also need to get into your accounts to help wrap things up.
If you don't give your executor access to your digital assets, your executor won't immediately be able to perform tasks such as:
Does that mean they'll never be able to manage your accounts or access your digital assets? Not necessarily. But in some cases, that might be true. In other cases, the access might be less than satisfactory, or the process of getting access might prove to be a huge hassle.
If any of your digital assets have a non-digital component to them, your executor will still be able to manage the account using their traditional authority. For example, if you do all of your banking online, your executor won't be able access your online account, but they will be able to contact the bank through the mail, or by walking to a physical branch to request that they close your account. They'll need to provide some paperwork, such as a certified copy of a death certificate and proof of their authority to act, usually in the form of letters testamentary.
Similarly, if your digital assets have a monetary value—like an online bank account, seller's account, or gaming account—your executor will be able to demand that the company provide payment to your estate. But the company will probably just transfer the money and terminate the account, without allowing executor access as a user. Any data—photos, sales history, contact information—might very well be lost.
So while there are ways for your executor to access some of your digital assets, the access might be slow or inadequate, especially compared to the way you currently access your accounts as a user.
In some cases, your executor might also be able to get direct access to your online accounts, even if you didn't give them access. But it may require significant time and expense, as your executor will have to deal with the probate court as well as each individual company that runs each account your executor needs to access. And in some situations, your executor might not be granted as much access to your accounts as they would like.
As a result, for most people, it makes sense to broadly give your executor the legal power to access your digital assets, as well as the usernames and passwords necessary to log in. But if you have privacy concerns, read to the end of this article.
Giving your executor the ability to access your online accounts is a multi-step process.
Granting legal authority. First, you should give your executor the legal authority to access digital assets, usually by granting this power in your will or trust. Some companies also offer a special tool to give some control to a person in charge of the deceased person's estate. For example, Facebook and Apple allow you to name a legacy contact while you're still alive, and Google offers a similar tool called an inactive account manager.
Providing login information. Second, you want to make sure that your executor has the practical ability to access your digital assets. This entails providing them with the usernames and passwords that are necessary to get into your account. You can use a letter to survivors or spreadsheet to collect this login information, store it in a secure place, and tell your executor where to find it. Remember to keep your document up to date as account information changes. Or you can make sure your executor has access to your password manager (such as LastPass, 1Password, or Bitwarden) if you use one in your daily life.
Leaving instructions. Lastly, leave clear instructions so your executor isn't left guessing what you might have wanted them to do with your online accounts. For example, you might want your executor to pass all of your digital photos onto your sister, post a special message to post to social media, or maybe just delete every possible trace of you from the internet. The more detailed your instructions, the easier it will be for your executor to follow through.
For more on these steps, see A Plan for Your Digital Assets.
Some people don't like the idea of their executor nosing around their digital accounts and files after they're gone. Those who prefer privacy certainly shouldn't leave a letter listing all of the passwords to their accounts. But they should also understand that the law generally has moved in the direction of giving executors very broad powers over a deceased person's digital assets. So even if you don't provide passwords, there's a chance your executor may be able to get into accounts that you consider private. As these laws develop, the right to privacy after death will be a hot topic. Stay tuned, and if you want to take steps to protect your privacy, get help from an estate planning lawyer who is on top of this issue.