Internet banking, online billing accounts, social media pages and blogs are a few of the digital assets that make up a person's online portfolio, but there are few laws determining how they are to be handled after a person's death. The Uniform Law Commission may have a solution.
Finding and closing down individuals' online accounts are necessary to ensure that all of their assets are being dealt with appropriately, especially if the deceased used online banking or had an automatic billing account with a website such as Netflix, according to a Deseret News article. It is also important to make sure that userless accounts aren't left floating around to become prey to identity thieves.
"Every year, more than 2 million Americans are the posthumous victims of identity fraud. Thieves can use a dead person’s information to rack up credit card charges, apply for loans,or even file false tax returns. And much of this information can be found on the Internet through something as simple as a shopping account," reported PBS.
The Deseret News article addressed the problem by encouraging people to assign a close friend or relative to be their "digital executor" in their will. The article also suggested making a list of accounts and passwords with instructions on what should be done.
But what if the deceased never made provisions for their digital assets?
The Uniform Law Commission, a national group of lawyers who draft legislation for state governments, recently approved an act that would give an appointed representative access to all of the deceased's online accounts, to ensure their affairs are put in order.
"The law gives the executor of your estate access to digital assets in the same way he had access to your tangible assets in the old world. It doesn't matter if they're on paper or on a website," Ben Orzeske, legislative counsel at the ULC, told NPR.
One purpose of the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act would be to provide a legal way to circumvent the privacy clauses of many websites and companies, which prevent any but the original account holder from accessing the information.
Grieving parents came up against Facebook's privacy clause in 2011 when Eric Rash, 15-year-old a high school student, committed suicide. His father appealed to the social media company for access to the boy's account to look for clues to explain why he'd taken his life.
"Facebook’s representatives, however, denied Rash’s request, telling him that free speech and privacy laws prevented them from allowing the father access," NBC reported in an article about the proposal.
Some opponents think that the act would be too far-reaching. The powers granted by the act, according to the text of the draft itself, would give the appointed representative "default authority over all of the principal’s digital assets," which raises some privacy concerns.
"The bill takes no account of minimizing intrusions into the privacy of third parties who communicated with the deceased," Jim Halpert, who leads the U.S. Privacy & Security practice of DLA Piper U.S. LLP, told both NBC and NPR in an email statement. He specifically mentioned correspondence the deceased may have had with doctors and clergy, which was meant to remain confidential.
Another issue is the vast amount of information available online. Even with the legal right to access accounts, it can be difficult to know on which sites the deceased had an account.
Glenn Williamson, a tech entrepreneur, told PBS that he spent 20 hours searching for his mother's online profile after she passed away, calling about 75 different companies to see if she had an account with them. The arduous process led him to develop WebCease, a company that searches the Internet for all of the accounts linked to a specific email address.