Including messages as part of estate planning for next of kin and/or other family and friends can provide tremendous comfort for those mourning the loss of someone they love. It’s important however that these personal messages are not executed casually.
Leaving behind a carelessly written note or one that has been recorded in haste can result in emotional fall out for relatives or friends already dealing with loss. It can also have legal ramifications for how the estate is later administered, leaving a will vulnerable to contestation which in turn results in considerable delays and potential costs for named beneficiaries.
This two-part feature will cover the offline and digital options in planning post mortem communications as well as considerations to avoid legal pitfalls.
What digital services exist to incorporate message giving as part of estate planning?
With the emergence and increasing reliance on the internet and digital services, it’s not surprising that there are many new online offerings catering for the digital afterlife.
There are several which help users do an audit of and manage their digital accounts and many of these already offer additional service components which enable someone to add personal messages for their next of kin or intended estate recipients.
Fred Schebesta, co-founder of finder.com.au, an online financial services comparison website points out that the choice of online apps and services is wide ranging.
“Facebook apps like IfIDie.net allow you to leave a personal message on your Facebook if you were to die. When signing up for the app you designate three participating friends who will let the app know when you pass away, which then prompts it to release your pre-recorded message,” says Schebesta. “There’s even a startup called Eterni.me that’s developing a service where you can create an online avatar that your loved ones can interact with.”
New services such as Eterniam provide access to digital assets to next of kin, family or friends as designated by the account owner. Parvez Anandam CEO for Eterniam says, “these digital assets can be photos, videos and important documents including both important legal ones as well as deeply personal ones such as letters to loved ones.”
Another recent digital afterlife start up, Passing Bye, offers users the option of assigning private messages and journal sharing to their nominated kin. With the Last Private Message feature, account holders can convey thoughts and notes that are sent to recipients as simple written messages. If a member is looking to include more, they can set up a journal entry or series of entries that can include photos and videos with text.
All these digital services will work using a fee structure, generally requiring an account holder to pay monthly or annual tariffs although in some cases they may include an option for the user to pay a one time lifetime fee.
For someone doesn’t want to pay for a service, the Facebook afterlife app ifIdie.net and many of these aforementioned companies also offer basic free services to accompany their premium offerings. They are often provided as a sample to entice subscribers to upgrade.
Another option for regular or avid Google users is Google Inactive Manager, a free service for account holders. Its objective is to encourage users to plan what happens to their Google data after death and includes a private written message option as part of the nomination or destroy process. This feature is available even if the user decides that all data is to be destroyed by the service provider. The downside to using this service is that Google will send messages and follow afterlife instructions only after a timeframe of at least three months. As a result, Google Inactive Manager will not be of benefit for messages that are time sensitive or include information that next of kin require immediately. How to sign up to Google Inactive Manager.
Important legal and practical considerations
As I’ve previously emphasised, it’s very important with any digital offering supporting your estate management efforts, that you understand their terms and conditions. This article gives a good summary on things to consider when signing up to a digital afterlife service but some questions to ask and think about when doing your assessment include:
- How are they managing your data and what are your privacy or legal rights?
- Under what conditions will the provider share your data with third parties?
- What will happen to your information if the service expires before you do? Will they make good on delivering your messages or refund your membership fee if they fail to action?
- How do nominated next of kin, friends and family receive instructions after your death? Does it suit your online lifestyle?
With courts recognising informal documents such as notes, emails, letters, video as having legal standing, another key aspect to think about carefully is what to include in post-mortem messages intended for next of kin, family or friends. Even if your intent is good, by leaving a personal message you may raise a recipient’s expectations or sense of entitlement relating to an inheritance and risk the potential of your estate instructions being questioned after death.
Darryl Browne, Solicitor at Browne-Linkenbagh explains that there has been a 60 per cent increase in claims over the last decade in Australia largely initiated by people who have been acknowledged within informal documentation by a deceased party which has later been used to contest the deceased person’s will.
“When you make declarations that are wrong, that overly inflate a person’s worth to you or are inflammatory when recording last wishes, it can be counterproductive,” says Browne. “If a will is contested, claims will take two or more years to be resolved and can have significant emotional, legal and financial implications for the intended beneficiaries of your estate.”
Kay Lam-McLeod, IT Lawyer from IdeaLaw agrees. “Remember that if your will is challenged, the estate will get hit with legal fees and it holds up distribution. So the people you want to leave your inheritance to are the ones who will suffer as a result.”
NEXT: What to think about when planning digital and offline post-mortem messages to avoid legal complications for beneficiaries.