Category Archives: Beneficiary Basics

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Social Networking Accounts: Who controls them after you die?

If State Representative Peter Sullivan of New Hampshire has his way, the executor or administrator of your estate could take control of your social media and other digital accounts after you die.

According to Sullivan, “The way we conduct our business as a society and the way our laws regulate how we communicate as a society have not kept up with technology.”

Since 2005, a few states have enacted their own laws dealing with digital assets after death. However, most of these laws are very weak and only go part of the way toward solving the problem.

And the Uniform Law Commission  last August appointed a committee to draw up a law that would “vest fiduciaries with the authority to access, manage, distribute, copy or delete digital assets and accounts,” according to a draft.

The commission is a nonpartisan group that produces legislative language that can then be introduced and adopted in individual states, with the goal of creating uniform legal standards across state lines.

Sullivan’s bill would ensure that, in New Hampshire at least, the executor of a dead person’s estate “shall have the power, where otherwise authorized, to take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate any accounts of a deceased person on any social networking website, any microblogging or short message service website, or any email service website.”

“This would essentially extend the powers of the administrator or executor of the state to basically step into the shoes of the deceased,” Sullivan said, taking control of the account and making the decision either to continue operating it or shut it down.

Sullivan said he was inspired to file his bill after several high-profile cases of bullying that led to teenagers’ suicides. In some cases, he said, the bullying continued online even after death, and families faced difficulty gaining control of those social-media profiles.

“The law is very vague as to the power of survivors to do something about it,” he said.  His bill, he added, is “going to bring the law up to date.”

Sullivan’s bill (HB 116) went before the State House Judiciary Committee for review this week.

Is everyone in support of this bill?

According to Rebecca Jeschke, a digital rights analyst at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation,  “There can be privacy pitfalls, though, to granting posthumous access to digital accounts. I personally don’t want my family to be able to read my email or other private online activity after I die. It’s private for a reason, after all. I’d be pretty suspicious of any bill that doesn’t default to allowing privacy for people even after they passed.”

Whether your state has a digital asset law or not, you can still take a few steps to protect your assets.

1. Make a list of all of your digital assets. The list should include your password for each. If it is easier, think about buying a password tracker like Roboform to handle this for you.

2. Think about what you want someone to do with your digital assets after your death. Who do you want to have access to them when you’re gone? Do you want them destroyed, memorialized, archived or transferred to someone else. It might be a good idea to write a letter concerning this issue and to keep it with your important papers.

3. When you prepare your will, trust and power of attorney documents, include a clause giving your representative authority to access your digital accounts. Even if your state law doesn’t cover the digital world, this clause may help your representative gain access to your accounts and to comply with your wishes.

For more information about this subject and others, go to www.diesmart.com.

HIPAA for Digital Assets?

According to Professor Jason Mazzone, University of Illinois, College of Law, “ people spend an increasing part of their lives using Facebook and other online social networking sites. However, virtually no law regulates what happens to a person’s online existence after his or her death”.

The professor’s recently published a paper, “Facebook’s Afterlife”, calls for federal laws to regulate what happens to a digital account after the death of its account holder. Mazzone states that Facebook and other online service policies don’t adequately protect the individual property and privacy interests of a deceased user’s account. He says “Social networking sites determine on their own what, if anything, to do with a deceased user’s account and the materials the user posted to the site….It’s a little like letting the bank decide what to do with your money after you die.”

He suggests that HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, is a comparable mandate. He wants a federal HIPAA-like law to protect peoples’ digital data after their death. It’s an interesting idea and one that is worth thinking about.

Die While You’re a Google Employee

Some companies treat their employees well while they’re alive but provide a few death benefits. However, no other company has a program as rich as Google’s. The benefits for living employees are amazing but those for the deceased’s family are broad and unusual.

  • The deceased’s spouse or domestic partner (can be same sex) receives 50% of their salary for 10 years.
  • All of the dead Google employee’s stock vest immediately.
  • Each child of the employee receives $1,000 per month until age 19…or age 23 for a full time student.
  • And there’s no tenure requirement. All employees qualify.

Why does Google do this?  Obviously, there’s no benefit to the company.  However, according to Google’s Chief People Officer, Laszio Bock, the company feels that it’s important “to help our families through this horrific if inevitable life event.”

So, if you want your loved ones to be well cared for financially after you’re gone and you’re not super rich or you don’t have a ton of life insurance, get a job at Google and continue to work there until you die.

Digital Assets – Few Laws Legislate Access to Them after Death

If you own digital assets like a Facebook page or a Google email account, what happens to them when you die?  Assuming that your next of kin knows your passwords, he or she can easily delete them.  However, if your passwords are not available, shutting down these accounts can prove problematic.  Each email or social media company has specific rules governing the disposition of its accounts and refuses to vary from those rules.  Some allow an executor or next of kin with suitable proof of death to close an account.  Others do not, making this writer wonder if those accounts will just float around cyberspace forever.

Many people feel that there should be laws governing all digital assets in the same way that other personal property is currently legislated.  However, even though digital assets have become a big part of our lives, there are only five states that have even begun to legislate what happens to them after your death – Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho. 

Here’s a summary of what the current laws cover:

1.  Connecticut’s law, enacted in2005, only covers email.  That’s not too surprising considering that the explosion of social networking sites hadn’t occurred when the bill was being formulated.  Facebook didn’t start until 2004, when it was launched as a site for use only by students attending specific colleges and Twitter began in 2006.  The law states that an email service provider must give the executor or administrator of the estate access to or copies of the contents of the account if the deceased lived in Connecticut at the time of his death. 

2.  Rhode Island, in its 2007 law, also limited itself to email and is very similar to Connecticut’s.

3.  Indiana’s law focuses on electronically stored documents of the deceased.  This could include email as well as many other digital assets.  The 2007 law says that the “custodian” of the electronically stored documents will provide to the personal representative of the deceased’s estate (if the deceased was living in Indiana at the time of death) access to or copies of any stored documents or information. 

4.  Oklahoma’s 2010 law is much more comprehensive.  It says that the executor or administrator of an estate will have the power to “take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate any accounts of a deceased person on any social networking website, any microblogging or short message service website or any email service websites.”

5.  Idaho’s law, which became effective in 2011, is virtually identical to that of Oklahoma.

On January 5, 2012, Senator John Wightman of Nebraska introduced a bill in his state legislature that would be similar to that of Oklahoma and Idaho.  However, according to Wightman, the methodology of how the government would access account information and forward it to an estate representative has not yet been determined.  In addition, several people have asked whether anyone but the owner of an online account should have the right to view and control its content.   Wightman agrees that the bill may have to “be modified in some way to take account of the privacy issues as to whether or not they’ll be able to view the content.” 

Why do you think so few states have tackled this issue so far?  Do you think your state should have legislation that would control access to your digital assets after your death?

To find out more about digital assets and what currently happens to them when someone dies, pick up a copy of our book, Grave Robbers…How to Prevent Identity Theft of the Deceased,   or check out the information at http://diesmart.com/

Social Security numbers – will online access be cut off?

Last week, Representative Sam Johnson of Texas introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that, if passed, will limit access to Social Security numbers available online.

The act, entitled “Keeping IDsSafe Act of 2011″ (KIDS Act), is intended to end online access to the Social Security Death Master File. This file currently enables anyone to easily locate the Social Security number of a deceased person. The File has been used for more than ten years by identity thieves to, among other things, file bogus tax returns to the IRS and collect refunds.

The bill was introduced two days after senators met with the Social Security Administration Commissioner, Michael Astrue, to ask the agency to limit information currently released in the death file.

As reported in a recent Scripps Howard News Service article, the need for access to this file to be limited was graphically illustrated when the parents of Benny Watters of Lake Forest, Illinois filed a tax return in August of this year. Benny died at age 5 in September 2010 and the Watters tax return was rejected. Why? Someone else had stolen the boy’s identity and claimed him as a dependent!

There have been recent news reports that say the IRS flagged 350,000 potentially fraudulent 2010 tax returns requesting $1.25 billion in refunds using information gathered about the dead.

The bill introduced by Johnson would limit access to the death file to law enforcement. Tax administrators and government researchers.

To find out more about this topic and other online identity thefts, check out “Grave Robbers…How to Stop the Identity theft of the Deceased.”