A local Minneapolis artist passed away unexpectedly last week. I’d done some website work for him over the past several years. Because of the nature of the work I was doing, I have access to much of the deceased’s “digital estate.” I have usernames and passwords for his website, registration, and even some financial accounts.
He wasn’t the kind of person to write down all those passwords and put them in his will. The obituary only shows who he is survived by, which may be quite different from whom he is leaving things to in his will.
My immediate thoughts were “Who did he leave everything to? Did they get all his account info? How can I contact them?”
And more important to the rest of us, “What can we do to prevent this kind of situation?”
So I thought about the different kinds of estates each of us have, and how to plan for their disposition when we kick the bucket:
- Everyone will have some kind of PHYSICAL estate: bank account, property, house, kids, etc.
- Many people now have a DIGITAL estate: online accounts, email, music and media libraries, services, utilities, website hosting/registration, social media, etc.
- Authors, Musicians and other artists may also have an INTELLECTUAL estate: Books, Music, Illustrations, Screenplays, etc.
Planning Your Physical Estate
Of the three, this is the estate you most likely have covered by contracts, agreements or a living will. Banks probably have a “specialist” on hand with forms to fill out and pamphlets describing the process of deceased account management. Same with your house, car, student loans and your kids.
But just because this is all intuitive and/or covered by state laws, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t assign where it goes when you die. I’ll bet many people don’t have a will, or if they do, it’s not current. Having an official living will isn’t good enough. You have to let others know you have it and where to find it. And if you are older, and/or in poor health, it makes sense to investigate a trust fund, which could save your inheritors plenty in estate taxes.
But nowadays, there’s more to think about than just your physical assets.
Planning Your Digital Estate
As slim as the odds are that you have your physical estate in order, it’s even less likely that you have your digital estate planned. And I’m not just talking about the login for your phone or the password for your computer, but that’s part of it.
Nobody cares about your facebook page. (Facebook will take it down anyway, as soon as they find out the account owner is deceased, per their End User License Agreement.) But they might care about your music library on i-tunes, or the library of e-books on your kindle, or the stash of family photos in your dropbox account… all of which are secured with user account/email/password.
Arguably, the most important part of your digital estate would be your email. Email can be used to verify password reset on many online accounts, so you’ll want to make sure your email account(s) are accessible by your inheritors.
One tool that can help Gmail account holders is Google’s Inactive Account Manager. It makes your account available to people you specify after a set period of account inactivity. Or deletes the lot of it. Your choice. You can read a review of Google Inactive Account Manager here at PCmag.com,
If you own a website domain, it’s really important that your next-of-kin understand the significance of renewing the domain hosting and registration. ESPECIALLY the registration. If that domain name goes one microsecond without getting renewed, someone will buy it. And the kind of people who would do such a thing are not the kind of people who would give it back. They might sell it back for a few thousand. Probably more. Or they might auction it off. Or they might keep it for themselves. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
This is even more important if the website is any source of income or sales.
Keep it Simple
There are plenty of software and services to help you pass along your digital domain if you go splat, but I don’t see any need for a monthly fee. My will includes username and password for one master account, which contains all the info for every account I’ve ever created online. Simple to pass on, and rarely needs updating. But for this to work, you have to be diligent about recording your account info in that master account…
Whatever method you use, the goal is the same – you’ll want your dearly beloveds to be able to access any valuable data, close memberships or services that autobill your bank, rollover any available funds, complete any online business (ebay, craigslist, etc) share the news of your passing, and perhaps monitor your email and social media sites for people trying to contact you.
As if this weren’t enough, artists have even more to worry about…
Planning Your Intellectual Estate
Authors, musicians and other artists leave more behind than just their student loans and music library. They often have intellectual property rights. And those rights are often left in limbo when they die because of poor planning. (or NO planning…) Songs, stories, scripts, movie rights, who knows – your steampunk paranormal romance novel that never sold might be worth something after you kick the bucket. Ask H.P. Lovecraft, who died a very poor man, but whose intellectual estate grew to extremely enviable value. The lesson is: don’t forget to assign ownership of your intellectual property in your will.
Uber-Author Neil Gaiman had the exact same thoughts about this issue, and brought it up with a lawyer/author who created a VERY SIMPLE WILL FOR AUTHORS. You should read the details about different ways to go about completing the form on Neil’s website.
But that simple will for authors is the least you should do. Sadly, much of intellectual property rights are complicated. They are written in legaleze, which few can speak and I will not utter here. They are contained on legal contracts, usually the physical, printed and signed-in-ink kind. These need to be somewhere your next-of-kin can find them.
And if you have an intellectual property lawyer or attorney, make sure their contact info is available to your next-of-kin. Even if the rights have been “sold off” to a publisher, you still want to delegate those rights in a will, because those rights may “fall back” to the author under certain conditions or after a certain period of time. It might be wise for next of kin to have these contracts reviewed and explained to them by an attorney.
Your Task List Before You Kick The Bucket
The goal is simple. In order for your physical, digital and intellectual rights estates to be bequeathed properly, you have to spell out not only who gets what, but how they get it.
- Maintain a living will to cover disposition of your physical, digital and intellectual estates.
- Make sure your will includes the “keys” (username, password, verified email account, and answers to security questions) to any digital property, so they can access the account.
- List any contracts for intellectual property in the will, or file copies of those contracts along with the will.
- Do it now. You could die while reading this blog post. So get off your ass and make that list.