On Monday, Yahoo Japan announced “Yahoo! Ending”, a program designed to help Yahoo Japan users plan for their death. The search engine, in partnership with funeral services company Kamakura Shinsho, helps Yahoo Japan users make a will, find a grave, and plan their funeral. Once Yahoo Japan confirms the user has died, the service will set up a memorial site, send out digital farewell messages, and delete personal data from Yahoo’s on line system. In the future, Yahoo Ending could be expanded to work with credit card, insurance and other companies to manage a wider scope of personal data left behind when users pass away.
Yahoo Ending answers the question “what happens to your Yahoo Japan digital assets when you die”. Once Yahoo Japan receives proof of death, Yahoo Japan assumes it has the legal authority to delete digital assets created and stored on Yahoo Japan.
In the United States, Yahoo digital assets are in fact part of the estate of the deceased. Before we created our digital life, we stored photos and art in an album or a picture frame. Our emails and text messages were paper letters and notes stored in a file cabinet. When someone dies, the estate representative is required by law to take an inventory of property owned by the deceased and assign a value to the property, including their digital assets. The estate representative is then required by law to dispose of property the deceased owned based on instructions left in a will or a trust, or state intestate laws if the decedent died without a will or a trust. In today’s paper world, estate representatives or beneficiaries must provide documents providing they are managing the assets according to the wishes of the deceased. In a paper world, proof of death does not trigger the automatic deletion or destruction of property owned by the decedent.
The question “what happens to our digital assets” continues to be the subject of legal debate as the internet service providers and the legal infrastructure grapple with the rules and processes for managing and disposing of digital assets that are in fact part of our estate.
We need programs and policies that don’t just deal with the death of the account owner, but also provide a way for trustees and conservators to manage our digital assets in the case of incapacity.