By most estimates, over half of adult Americans haven't written a will stating how their assets should be distributed after death. Fewer still have bothered to appoint someone to make financial and health care decisions on their behalf should they become incapacitated. And now we can add another necessary, but probably overlooked legal document: a social media will.
That's right — in this age of email, password-protected accounts and social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, the U.S. government, of all sources, recently pointed out why it's important for people to leave instructions for how they want their online identities handled after death.
The government's blog, www.usa.gov, suggests appointing a trusted relative or friend to act as your "online executor," taking responsibility to close your email accounts, social media profiles and blogs after you die. This could easily be an addendum to your will — assuming you have one.
Actions that will help you write your social media include:
Review the privacy policies and the terms and conditions of each website where you have a presence.
State how you would like your profiles to be handled. You may want to completely cancel your profile or keep it up for friends and family to visit and share their thoughts. Some sites allow your heirs to create a memorial profile where others can still see your profile but can't post anything new.
Give your social media executor a list of all websites where you have a profile, along with your usernames and passwords.
Stipulate in your will that the online executor should be given a copy of your death certificate. The person may need this as proof in order for websites to take any actions on your behalf.
I'd take it one step further and suggest that you also leave instructions for accessing your password-protected devices and accounts including computers, cellphones and online banking accounts. The last thing you want grieving survivors to have to do is try and guess your account usernames and passwords.
In case you've been procrastinating about completing a will and other such documents, here's a good motivator: Although wills aren't mandatory, if you don't have one when you die, the state will decide how your estate is settled. Similarly, if you haven't filed financial and health care durable powers of attorney, someone else — not necessarily the person you wish — will make financial and health care decisions on your behalf should an accident or illness render you unable.
Here are a few things that could go wrong if you don't make your wishes known:
Court-supervised probate could hold up your estate and result in costly fees.
Because the state usually awards assets to surviving spouses, children and other relatives, your friends and favored charitable institutions could be left out.
With no will, the state decides guardianship for minor children whose parents have died.
Your preferences for things like life-support procedures and burial instructions may not be followed exactly.
Key documents that can prevent these kinds of scenarios include a will, revocable living trust, financial and health care powers of attorney and a living will.
In this Internet era, your legacy will likely live on long after you die. Do your family a favor and spare them from having to deal with these issues by addressing them now.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at PracticalMoney.