Protecting Online Assets: 9 Ways to Safeguard Your Digital Legacy

Planning for digital assets is something that anyone crafting a will—or power of attorney—should consider these days, particularly given that laws vary state by state and an increasing number of families are finding themselves locked out of their loved one’s accounts.

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Just because you don’t know how “the Twitter” works, don’t think you’re off the hook. Planning for digital assets is something that anyone crafting a will—or power of attorney—should consider these days, particularly given that laws vary state by state and an increasing number of families are finding themselves locked out of their loved one’s accounts. (Read TIME’s full report on the legislative rush to protect your digital legacy)

Here are nine easy tips for protecting your online identity:

1. Make a list.

A digital asset is considered anything you access online, on your computer or in a cloud that has emotional or financial value. A few examples might include: email and social media accounts; digital photo albums or movie collections; video game avatars; domain names; online subscriptions; online investment accounts; even frequent flyer miles. Keep in mind that others might value some of your digital assets differently; emails could seem worthless to you, for instance, while they’d be treasures for loved ones or keys to managing your estate.

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2. Cast a wide digital net when planning.

Maybe you use automatic, paperless billing for your cell phone. Maybe you have a PayPal account that will need to be closed. Maybe you use a regional bank for your online checking account. That may not fall under the strict umbrella of “cataloging digital assets,” but while you’re racking your brain, jot those details down along with your other usernames, passwords and answers to security questions. Leaving your representative instructions for anything and everything will make the transition easier—and be a helpful reminder about what needs to be managed.

3. Know the law where you live.

Or at least make sure you consult an attorney who does. Five states have laws that help representatives gain access to digital assets: Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island. And many more states have bills in the works. So far, those laws are far from uniform, some covering only email, others everything down to “micro-blogging.” Estate law, on the whole, varies from state to state too. So the steps you need to take may vary a bit depending on where you hang your hat.

4. Know that planning is about more than just access. It’s about privacy.

Let’s say you don’t specify what you want done with your email account. This may mean that the executor of your estate will eventually have access to all your emails—even if you never wanted another living soul to see those messages. That is especially true for those living in a state with a digital-asset law. Be explicit in outlining who you want to give access to what.

5. Make your choices clear.

Identify the person, or people, who should be in charge of the digital assets. This should definitely be someone you trust—and ideally someone who is digitally savvy. Go through your list and make it clear who you want to have access to your assets, what valuables you want passed along to others, which accounts you want shut down, and so on.

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6. Keep the list of usernames and passwords separate from the will…

Estate lawyers often advise clients to make a separate list of personal assets, such as keepsakes, and merely reference the list in the will. That allows people to change their minds about who gets what—if, say, Johnny misbehaves—at any time without having to go see the attorney again, says Michigan lawyer Valerie Kutz-Otway. For digital assets, keeping the list and access information independent from the will also allows you to keep passwords updated and add new items easily—which is important given how often our digital footprints expand. And because wills can become public documents, this helps assure that passwords stay private. This document should be kept in a safe place.

7. …But make sure you cover details that need to be legally binding in the will itself.

Victoria Blachly, an attorney working on a digital asset bill in Oregon, notes that you should still identify the beneficiaries of any digital assets in the will itself—if, say, your digital movie collection is going to your buddy Peter. You should also authorize the people you want to be in charge of doling out or managing the assets. For example, in the will, you might say Jane should be in charge of managing all social media accounts. Again, the ins-and-outs of what needs to go in the will itself could vary from state to state.

8. Review those terms of service agreements that you never read.

Outfits such as Facebook and Gmail have their own policies for handling accounts after a user dies. Gmail states that the company may turn over emails with the appropriate court order. Yahoo says the emails are private no matter what. For accounts that are important to you (and which may not be legally classified as your property or as something transferrable), research the company’s MO. This will help you leave more informed instructions and prepare your representative to take on the company policy, if that’s what you desire.

9. Don’t expect absolute results.

Estate law is still catching up to our electronic world, which means that even if you meticulously plan, you may not be able to deal with your digital assets exactly as you would like. Your representative may run up against terms of service agreements that conflict with your wishes—or even federal and state laws about unauthorized access to electronic files. In any case, says George Washington University law professor Naomi Cahn, you’re safer stating in a will that this or that is what you want to have happen to your e-valuables: Should your estate need a court order, that should help you get one. “So many of us have such important information about ourselves and our lives stored in the digital world,” she says, “and in planning, we can hope that a court will enforce what we want. In the absence of planning, we have even less control.”

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