Wills and estate planning offer ways to safely transfer your worldly assets to loved ones after you die. But what happens to your digital existence? Nicole Ewing, VP and Business Succession Advisor and Tax and Estate Planner, TD Wealth, talks to Kim Parlee about the legal rights to digital properties like social media profiles and online accounts.
Nice to see you.
There's a big list here of things that have to be managed. And again, this wasn't a problem 10 or 15 years ago. But it is now.
What happens to your digital life when you die? Let's say you've got a grandfather with years of photos of kids and family. What happens to those?
It depends on what Grandpa has done, whether he's contemplated this and put any plans in place. It depends on what service provider you're dealing with, what platform is holding those photos. There's no automatic, easy answer to that question. We don't know.
Now if you have something in place-- like, something written-- does that help with that?
It can. And I think that the biggest challenge with these is that across all of the different platforms, we have a different way of them dealing with it, because when we're talking about technology, the people creating the technology are not necessarily thinking about the incapacity or death of a user. They're thinking about people who are actually using it.
And so when we look at the individual end user agreements that people are signing onto, it may or may not give them the authority to, in a will or in a power of attorney document, give someone else the authority to deal with the asset-- "asset." It is. It's a property.
And there's a question as to whether or not they'll actually have the authority to deal with that asset and whether naming somebody, for example, in the will or in the power of attorney--
Will give them authority to do it.
--or puts them offside of the agreement. Perhaps you have an obligation to keep things secret and you can't give anybody else the information. And by naming them, you might be offside the agreement altogether. So it's a real web.
Yeah. And I guess I'm just thinking about all those user agreements we kind of click on and probably don't read at the same time.
Exactly. Scroll, scroll.
Yeah. Exactly. OK, what about emails?
Emails-- that's very challenging, because we think about, again, what platform the email is on. We think, well, just give somebody the password. But do you necessarily want that individual having access to all of the emails that you've ever written? It depends on whether you're using Google or Yahoo or whether it's a work email.
Certainly, I think, for work email, we all know the employer's email is their property. It's not the property of the employee. But people tend to use it--
I think people might be surprised by that, believe it or not. But they should know that.
They should know that. And people tend to use it for some personal business, anyways. Certainly, the employer is not going to be granting access to your spouse or kids to come in and retrieve information off of there.
Business owners-- that's a whole different issue. Are the reasons why the family would not be able to gain access to the business owner's emails? There's a lot of information hidden in the emails that people might want access to, for different reasons.
And you might want to be giving different people the authority to do that. We don't yet have a system in place in Canada to allow that fluidity.
Yeah. OK, question mark number 2 here-- there's lots of question marks at this point. What about social media?
Again, that's a broken record. It really depends on the platform that you're dealing with. We have new ones all the time.
We're thinking about whether it's Facebook or a different type of social media. Each individual provider has a different way of dealing with this issue. So Facebook, for example-- I'm not an expert on this at all. But I did go in and just double-check that my understanding-- on the app, for example, you have the ability to go into your general settings and select how you want your account to be dealt with on death. Two options, essentially-- it can either be deleted in its entirety or memorialized.
And they give you the opportunity to name a legacy contact. And this will be the person who has the ability to do some things on the account-- not all things, but some things on the account. Other social media platforms deal with this completely differently.
What about-- I want to think about financial media. Paypal. So I think there's the complexity of giving access to the account, and then there's what's actually in the account.
Exactly. PayPal takes a different approach to it. And they say that we will not give anyone else access to the account.
What they'll do is recognize the authority of an individual-- the executor-- to deal with the assets. They'll close the account and distribute the funds to them. That individual, then, is holding those funds on behalf of the estate. Simply because they have the authority to access the funds does not give them ownership of those assets.
So for all of these, then, is one of the best things to do is to write it down, even in your will, to say, this is what I intend to do? And then hopefully, it jives with the user agreements.
So we have best practices the lawyers are doing now to insert language into documents. Many of these assets are property. Some of them are not.
Some of them are licensing agreements. And that's where we get offside. Or they may be different jurisdictions that legislation is governing these types of relationships.
But where we can include a provision in the power of attorney document or the will, specifically saying that you give your executor the authority to deal with digital assets. Now you don't want to include the passwords in that document itself. But you may want to, in the same way we have security boxes, to direct somebody to a different document where you may have some of that more sensitive information.
Yeah. And that's the issue, too, is you may want someone to know that it's in good hands and taken care of, but a lot of people will have confidential information, whether it be personal or business dealings. We hear about it the media when sometimes things are revealed after someone passes. So how do you manage all that, too?
Well, and it's challenging. I just think to myself of the Drafts folder in my email-- the drafts unsent. Do I want those to ever be exposed or read? Probably not.
So I think the best thing that we should do is treat our digital property the same way that we treat our real property, is that we do a spring cleaning. We all go through our closets and, every couple of years, get rid of things that we no longer need.
I think that's maybe a best practice with respect to digital assets, as well. Go through your emails. Do you really need that email from 15 years ago? And look at what assets-- maybe it's time to print some of those photos and hang them on the wall. Maybe it's time to take some of those funds out of Paypal and put them into your investing accounts and actually start using those virtual assets in your daily life.
And I guess just to be aware of everything you have and know what to do.
Nicole, thanks very much.
It's great to be here.