A CPA’s guide to death in the internet age

By Greg LaFollette, CPA/CITP, CGMA

As CPAs, we are often called upon to provide guidance in estate planning and occasionally to actually implement those plans at the time of death. We all know the drill regarding bank accounts, legal title transfers, execution of the last will and testament, trust documents, etc. But are we ready to assist in dealing with "digital death" regarding internet accounts and social media? The problem is very real and growing as more and more of us maintain dozens, even hundreds, of accounts on various websites and apps.

I have given this a fair amount of thought and tried to create a plan to smooth the way for those charged with handling my "digital presence" after my demise. While I'm perfectly OK with most of my "service" types of accounts simply expiring (e.g., Best Buy, Staples, Zappos, Fandango, and even Papa Murphy's), other accounts deserve attention after my death. Those accounts include the obvious financial ones — banking, credit card, brokerage, etc. — and many not-so-obvious ones — airline and hotel loyalty accounts, social media accounts, and accounts holding "digital assets" such as music, books, movies, etc. We've discussed password managers before in this space so just a note to remind you of the importance of documenting not only passwords but also the usernames and the very existence of internet accounts. Here are some things you'll want to know regarding some of the more common accounts:

Facebook: I recommend that you add a "legacy contact" to your account. This is someone who can gain control of your account and memorialize (or delete) it following your death. A legacy contact will be able to update profile pictures and post things that appear on your "memorialized" page. This person also can have your account permanently deleted if that's what you prefer. Here's how to set up a legacy contact:

1. Go to your account Settings > Manage Account > Your Legacy Contact.

2. Type in the name of the person you would like to make your legacy contact. He or she must be among your existing Facebook friends.

3. You can choose to send this friend a message to let him or her know of your designation, but it's not required. The contact will receive an email explaining what it means to be a legacy contact.

4. Finally, decide whether your legacy contact will have data-archiving permission and whether you'd like your account to simply be deleted.

Instagram: Though owned by Facebook, Instagram does not use the legacy contact system but rather asks the next of kin to notify the company and provide proof of the account holder's death.

Twitter: Twitter will not grant survivors access to your account, so without the username and password, your only alternative is to have your heirs provide proof of death and request that your account be deactivated.

Apple: What about all the movies, music, and books you've "purchased" through iTunes over the years? Well, you really purchased only a "license," and, according to Apple, that license expires when you do! The terms and conditions state: "You agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death." There's not much room for interpretation there.

Google: You can nominate an account trustee and select what will be shared with them (e.g., photos, email, calendar data, etc.). Google provides "activation" of the trustee at a preselected time between three and 18 months after your account becomes inactive. To set up your trustee, log in to your Google account and go to the Inactive Account Manager at myaccount.google.com/inactive.

Greg LaFollette, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is a strategic adviser with CPA.com, the commercial subsidiary of the American Institute of CPAs. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4056.

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