Planning messages from the beyond

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

digital_afterlife_estate_planning_messages

Credit: Shho

 

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.

If a will is drafted on a mobile phone, is it valid?

digital afterlife or legacy on phone

Credit: Michal Zacharzewski, SXC

According to this recent blog post by IdeaLaw, the answer is “yes, it can be!” There has been a case in Queensland already in which the court ruled that a will drafted on an iPhone was valid.

Three elements need to be satisfied for a court to find an informal will valid.

1) That it is a document
2) That the document states the deceased’s intentions for their estate after their death
3) That the deceased intended the document to be a will

Which leads to an important question.

Are there or could there be wills drafted on social networking sites or within an email inbox that could be declared valid in the future?

IdeaLaw proposes that this could be so if these above elements can be demonstrated. Read their blog post for a legal perspective on the Queensland example and potential consequences in layman’s terms.

How to keep passwords confidential while bequeathing them to your next of kin: digital services

 

digital_afterlife_password_security

Copyright: Asif Akbar

A legal representative such as a solicitor or lawyer can act as a third party confidant in helping you plan a digital afterlife and privately keep your passwords on file for next of kin. There is also an increasing number of digital afterlife and secure online password services that will help you assign important information such as bank or legal documents to nominated beneficiaries as well as release usernames and passwords according to your instructions.

These can be more convenient for people who are active internet users changing passwords several times a year across multiple accounts. They allow users to automatically access and update their information whenever they want without the need to work through another person. This is useful if someone has to respond quickly to a bug or security threat.

There are other advantages too. Online services concerned with passwords and passing on digital legacies are varied in what they offer but generally speaking, they aim to centrally manage multiple sources of data in one place. Many include a decent amount of storage for the account holder to organise photos, memories, notes and documents with friendly user interfaces for viewing and downloading. On the whole, they encourage users to think in a structured way about doing an inventory of their online life and the digital legacy that they’d like to share.

When doing your research, it’s worth fully understanding how the service will verify when it is time to share your confidential information. Because of their nature, digital afterlife services are often automated and take a variety of approaches to ascertain if someone has died and if their data should be passed on. Some such as Google Inactive Manager provide information to next of or nominated kin if the account holder hasn’t logged into the service for a period of time. Others, will send prompts, such as emails or texts to customers periodically, asking them to confirm that they are still alive. If there’s no reply, these companies will often do additional checks to establish if the account holder is deceased before finally distributing information to next of kin.

If you don’t check in with or respond to this kind of service within your agreed time period, you may end up sharing information before it’s time, something that will be distressing, awkward and have security implications for you. Ensure that you fully understand the terms and conditions as well as the style and format of communication this kind of service has – both with you and your next of kin.

Also, make sure that your digital service fits in with your lifestyle. If you are not likely to check in regularly with a service that relies on you to do so, either because you don’t spend a lot of time online or you’re unlikely to remember, this type of offering won’t be a convenient option. Similarly, a digital legacy plan that operates by sending a series of electronic prompts asking you to confirm that you are alive won’t work for you if this type of communication bugs you.

Given that the digital afterlife industry is still an immature one, I’d recommend that you find out what the financial status or longer term vision is of the organisation that you’re considering. There have been a few mergers of late. Entrustet was acquired by SecureSafe and more recently PasswordBox bought LegacyLocker. Shifts happen in any industry but it’s worth asking any potential company that’s going to be charged with your digital legacy, what its longer term goals are and how it is going to support them. What are its contingency plans for your data if it expires before you do?

Finally, it’s worth re-iterating that you should check terms and conditions to fully understand what you’re subscribing to, what your responsibilities are when using the service as well as the service provider’s accountability to you. According to Damin Murdock, Principal Lawyer for MurdockCheng Legal Practice, the main benefit of storing your digital estate with a lawyer as opposed to an online platform is that the client will have the comfort of knowing a law firm has a succession plan and is bound by strict rules, regulations and statutory duties. With an online platform, you are only bound by terms and conditions of use for the online platform. Be clear what kind of jurisdictional rules may apply to you and what its commitment is to you and your data.

What digital services exist to manage and transition passwords and other important documentation to next of kin?

How can you keep your passwords confidential while providing to next of kin when the time comes?

Copyright: Patrick Hajzler

Copyright: Patrick Hajzler

You may be thinking about what happens to your digital estate after you die and you’ve read that it’s wise to provide a list of your online accounts and passwords to your nominated friend, family member or next of kin.

What options are available to you to transition this information securely and reliably? The chances are you won’t want to share sensitive log-in and account details to your next of kin while you are alive for many reasons including security. There are several third party organisations that will transition documents, digital password information or instructions to people you nominate to receive these when you die. In this article, we look at the benefits of using a solicitor or lawyer. Compare digital services and what to consider when assessing an online option.

Many organisations including Away For a Bit have suggested that usernames and passwords are provided to a solicitor or lawyer which can then be transferred to the right person or people as part of your estate.

For those wondering if this is a secure process, in Australia, lawyers are bound by both law and Professional Conduct Rules.

According to Paul Gordon, Associate at Finlaysons, “If a lawyer breaches these, they could be disqualified from practicing as a lawyer and could face additional penalties.”

These rules apply when solicitors are tasked with looking after information deemed confidential by the client. Gordon points out that “Professional Conduct Rules (which differ slightly between states and territories) require lawyers to keep information provided to them by their clients confidential, except in some very limited circumstances. If a list of usernames and passwords were to be provided to a solicitor, this would be treated no differently.”

There are advantages to using a solicitor versus using a digital service to pass on confidential password data. If your next of kin or family member is not online savvy then they may be overwhelmed by the processes involved with a digital transfer of this information to them. Or they may not even read the electronic communication that alerts them to its existence.

By using a solicitor, the recipient also has the benefit of being able to speak to and question someone personally about account information that has been included in a deceased person’s estate.

It’s best not to include a summary of your accounts and their access details directly in a will however. Once a Last Will and Testament is filed for probate within the appropriate state, it becomes a public document as does any codicil attached to a will.

For security and practical reasons, Gordon says that “he would recommend that this be given as a separate document to your lawyers for many reasons, including the fact that every time you changed your passwords, or added a new one, you would have to change the will!”

Things to consider

  • People considering using their lawyers to safeguard their digital identity should enquire about what security and confidentiality measures apply.
  • There may be a fee incurred when using a solicitor or lawyer to look after your documentation.
  • Be aware if the terms and conditions of the digital services you use allow you to disclose username/password information to your lawyer or next of kin when the time comes.
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