When a loved one dies, they leave behind not only memories and physical possessions, but many digital accounts as well.  Unlike family heirlooms and documents stored in the decedent’s home, access to digital accounts such as email and social networking sites can be challenging if the deceased has not entrusted someone with the usernames and passwords for their accounts.  Access to digital accounts after death is a relatively new legal issue, but one that is becoming increasingly common.  The Martin Law Firm’s experienced PA probate lawyers have compiled some useful tips on how to gain access to online accounts of a loved one who has died or become incapacitated.

Email Accounts

Our PA probate lawyers recommend a decedent’s email account as a good starting point because you can often uncover a lot of information that can be used to access other accounts.  Since email is so regularly accessed, there’s a chance you’ll find that the account is already logged in.  Our PA probate lawyers suggest checking all of the decedent’s computers and his or her cell phone.  Cell phones, especially smartphones, are often a good place to try gaining access to digital accounts because many accounts won’t require an additional login.  If their email isn’t already logged in, there are a few other steps you can take.

If you are trying to access a deceased relative’s Gmail account, for example, you will be required to submit documentation to Google including identifying information as well as a death certificate.  After Google’s validation and review process, Google may grant access to an authorized representative of the deceased.  Learn more about Gmail’s policy for accessing a deceased person’s mail.

If you are able to gain access to the decedent’s email account, be careful not to close the account immediately because the deceased may continue to receive emails that will provide useful information about other accounts.  Monitor the email account for automatic debit notifications from sites like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Sharebuilder.  Keep in mind that sites like Flickr and Google bill a user annually for their paid services.

Social Media

Social media networks like Twitter and Facebook provide a rather public forum for interaction.  Algorithms within the social networks can cause a person’s profile to pop up on feeds even after the person has passed away.

Twitter offers a profile removal feature, but won’t allow you to access the individual’s information.  Facebook doesn’t provide a direct way for you to access a deceased relative’s account, but will allow you to create a memorial page that will replace the decedent’s former profile.  According to Facebook, key features of memorialized accounts include:

  • No new friends can be accepted
  • No one can log into the memorialized account
  • Content the decedent shared (posts, photos, etc.) remains on Facebook and is visible to the audience it was shared with
  • Memorialized timelines don’t appear in People You May Know and other suggestions
  • Friends can share memories on the memorialized timeline (depending on the privacy settings on the decedent’s account)

Our PA Probate Attorneys’ Quick Tips for Accessing Online Accounts of the Deceased

  • Try using the same password as email
  • Check all computers and internet browsers
  • Check to see if passwords are written down on paper or stored on the computer (search “passwords”)
  • Review Terms of Service agreements for instructions on how to access specific accounts
  • If you have access to the deceased’s smartphone, it’s likely that these accounts are already connected, and you will be able to access them

Conclusion

Estate law has only just begun to consider the topic of handling digital assets and accounts after death.  A handful of states have developed legislation on this topic, but Pennsylvania is not among them, and the future of this issue remains largely unknown.  Our PA probate lawyers are dedicated to staying on top of developments in this field.  Currently, there is no universal method for estate executors or beneficiaries to access digital assets on behalf of the deceased.

Since there is no definitive law on what happens to digital assets after death, you should consider addressing digital assets in your estate plan to allow designated representatives to access them.  If you address your digital assets in your estate plan, then your personal representative will be aware of these assets and will be able to minimize the risk of losing assets of financial or sentimental value.  There are several ways to address digital assets in a Pennsylvania estate plan.  There are also a handful of online services such as Ifidie.org and LegacyLocker that allow you to store and pass along information in the event of your death or incapacity.  These options should be discussed with one of our experienced PA probate lawyers.

When a loved one dies, there is much to be accomplished during what can be a very difficult time.  The guidance and expertise of experienced PA probate lawyers can be tremendously useful as you attempt to navigate the probate and estate administration process.  To get started with your estate plan, or for assistance with the administration of a decedent’s estate, please contact The Martin Law Firm to speak with one of our PA probate lawyers.

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