Even seniors who carefully plan for the disbursal of their worldly assets can leave beneficiaries arguing about who is really entitled to Aunt Betty’s antique rocker or mom’s diamond ring. But until now, no one has disputed who owns a family member’s Facebook account.
Granted, it seems strange to think about someone inheriting or bequeathing a bunch of pixels. It sounds like a digital version of, “I leave my college term papers to my brother Bill and my high school poems to my sister Sarah.” But unlike yellowing notebooks of cherished prose or poetry, digital media has a life of its own, so it is important for reverse mortgage professionals — and anyone else who works with seniors — to be aware of this relevance in terms of estate planning, so you can refer seniors with online accounts to an appropriate estate planner or other financial planning professional.
In the cyber age, anyone who uses the Internet leaves a digital legacy — often remarkably large, and eternal for as long as the Internet exists. Because the concept of an online legacy is so new, and because seniors have joined the cyber ranks in droves, the question of who owns this “digital afterlife” is still a matter of dispute, as one grieving mother who sued Facebook for access to her deceased 22-year-old son’s account can attest.
At issue is privacy versus sentiment, though in some cases an online account, such as a popular blog, may be a financial asset as well. While the courts decide what new legislation will apply to our digital footprint, cyber savvy seniors and those who financially advise them would be wise to consider this question when they’re creating or revising their will, or discussing how they plan to distribute their more tangible assets.
A key question for a senior (or anyone, of any age, since death can come without warning) to ask is, How would I prefer my online presence to be handled once I die, or if I am no longer able to manage my cyber accounts? The more specific someone can be about what they would like done with their email, online photo albums, social media accounts, blogs, website(s), etc., the less likely their digital footprint will haunt those who remain — or deny access to potential memories that can soothe grieving loved ones.