2013 seems to be the year of digital afterlife planning. Last month the North Carolina Senate approved Bill 279, a bill for the state’s first-ever laws addressing digital assets. This month Google took their first step forward in post-death account management of their applications. Launching a feature called Inactive Account Manager, Google now offers its users the ability to designate how they wish the data stored on their various Google applications, like Picasa Web Albums, YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, and more, managed after they are gone. Items that do not have inherent financial value, but those that the user chooses to preserve for next of kin.
The Inactive Account Manager allows users to select a specified time frame and actions to take related to their Google account data. Users can pick from 3, 6, 9, or 12 month time frames. After the desired time has passed with no activity, the account information can either be deleted or the access information forwarded along to user-selected contacts. What is the best time frame to select? In North Carolina, it is required that estate distribution be completed in a year unless the court grants an exception. The three-month option would be the best choice since an estate will still be ongoing during this time. Before taking any action, the Inactive Account Manager will send text and alternate email alerts as a warning.
Google’s new tool is a good complement to state law and comprehensive planning documents, but there is potential for controversy. How will North Carolina laws addressing digital assets be reconciled with coinciding individual account management programs like Google is offering? Complications may arise if an individual uses a power of attorney offline to appoint an agent to manage their digital assets, but at the same time pre-selects a different person via Google’s Inactive Account Manager or similar program to do the same. Although it is not a legal requirement, it would be in an individual’s best interest to inform their agent about settings such as these. Laws outside of North Carolina may govern these types of circumstances. Google, based in California, may have their user agreements under their state’s jurisdiction. Cases with other web entities, like a 2005 family’s suit against Yahoo, end up falling under the user agreement, which states account access is non-transferable. Eventually, having a federal law addressing issues like this would help resolve what will become an ever more important part of dealing with an incapacitated or deceased person’s assets.
North Carolina’s digital assets bill is now being reviewed by committee members as it moves along to the House. To ensure access to your online data is not compromised, ask a North Carolina estate planning attorney about updating estate planning documents to reflect the latest laws and practices regarding digital assets. As new digital asset management services are launched, keep your agents, executors, and trustees informed of any settings you choose to make with these applications.