If you’ve made a will, your loved ones will get many of your tangible assets — your car, house, stereo and family heirlooms. But what about your digital property — email accounts, online stock options, photo-sharing sites, even your iTunes profile?
Chances are your digital legacy will likely be lost forever.
“Today those things would die with me as opposed to being passed on,” said state Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, an attorney who’s filed a bill that would allow designated individuals to have access to digital accounts of people who have died or become incapacitated.
“It’s an ever-increasing issue,” Hukill said. “It’s something we haven’t thought about. When you talk to people now and ask them, ‘What’s going to happen to your digital assets after you die?’ There’s a blank look on their face.”
A digital asset can have sentimental value, such as photos of a family trip or a blog about daily life. But it also can have monetary value like a family business website or business email account. In 2011, the computer security company McAfee released a survey that found global consumers placed an average value of more than $37,000 on their digital assets while the value was even higher in the U.S. at nearly $55,000.
Under current law, it is illegal to access another’s digital accounts without prior approval, said J. Eric Virgil, a Coral Gables attorney who chairs the Digital Assets Committee of The Florida Bar’s Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section. He said the bill proposed by Hukill would clarify many of those questions.
“If I die, I can ask a representative of my estate to close those accounts,” Virgil said. “But right now there’s no clear answer about whether they can.”
According to Hukill’s bill, an estate’s assets would include digital property allowing a trustee to take inventory of the estate’s digital assets and close out the remaining accounts. To gain access to online assets, a request would be sent to companies who act as the account custodian such as Google or Facebook.
A federal law enacted to deal with hackers and identity thieves makes it an offense to gain unauthorized access to stored communications, such as e-mails, held by third-party Internet service providers. Another law prohibits unauthorized computer access.
Also, if an estate’s administrator has passwords to an account, a “terms-of-service” agreement could legally limit access to the information, Virgil said.
One of the more well-known cases dealing with digital assets involved the family of Massachusetts man John Ajemian who sued Yahoo! for access to his email account so they could inform friends about his death. Citing federal law, Yahoo! refused access, though the court ultimately ruled the family could have limited access.
Virgil stressed it’s important for people to keep a list of all of their online accounts and passwords in a secure place such as a safety deposit box. Otherwise, even if someone is allowed to access your accounts after you die, they might not know some exist.
“Before everybody’s lives were online, we’d get bank and credit card statements in the mail,” Virgil said. “Now you might not ever see any of that stuff.”
If the bill is approved, Florida would become the second state with such a law on the books. Hukill said she’s already taking inventory of her online accounts.
“I’ll be the first one putting this language into my will,” Hukill said.