Digital estate planning has attracted more and more attention in recent years as online assets become more central to our lives. On a legal front, the rules regarding inheritance destruction, and/or preservation of these online accounts remains unclear. That is because most rules are based on the terms and conditions of each individual social network or online program. For example, the process of taking down a Facebook page of someone who has passed away is not the same as taking down a Twitter account. There is little uniformity.
However, as the issues related to passing on access to these accounts grows, more social networking companies are working to enact different procedures and protocols to make the transition easier.
Passing on Google Account Data at Death
For example, last week the internet giant Google announced a new plan to help account users pass on access to their account in a seamless manner. According to reports on the policy change at the Wall Street Journal, this means that Google “became one of the first major Internet companies to put control of data after death directly into the hands of its users.”
Per the policy changes, users of various Google services can now use a dashboard to set up a plan to take effect upon a certain period of inaction. Specifically, users can either delete account data or pass on data to a third party after either 3, 6, or 12 months of inactivity. This service is known as Google’s “Inactive Account Manager,” but most have colloquially begun referring to it as setting up your “Google heirs.” The manager allows one to set up this process for most of Google’s major services, including Gmail, Google Drive (cloud storage system), the Google+ social network, and more.
Importantly, even under this new protocol, Google does now allow a third party to actually control access to these accounts. This only refers to passing on data (emails, messages, pictures, etc.). That means that if you’d like to ensure your heir has actual access to manage these accounts, you will need to come up with alternative arrangements. Those alternatives might include having a running list of passwords and account names to be given to a set party upon death. There are many online versions of these “password lock boxes” which one can use. Some are free while others offer more advanced dissemination of online account for a fee.
At the end of the day, it is a good sign that Google is taking step to address the digital assets issue. Hopefully more and more networks take the same steps, preventing what is becoming a clear estate planning problem that many families must deal with in the midst of grief.