By most estimates, over half of adult Americans haven't written a will stating how their assets should be distributed after death. Fewer still have bothered to appoint someone to make financial and health care decisions on their behalf should they become incapacitated. And now we can add another necessary, but probably overlooked legal document: a social media will.
That's right -- in this age of email, password-protected accounts and social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, the U.S. Government, of all sources, recently pointed out why it's important for people to leave instructions for how they want their online identities handled after death.
In How and Why You Should Write a Social Media Will, the USA.gov blog suggests appointing a trusted relative or friend to act as your "online executor," taking responsibility to close your email accounts, social media profiles and blogs after you die. This could easily be an addendum to your will -- assuming you have one.
The blog suggests several actions to take that will help you write your social media will:
- Review the privacy policies and the terms and conditions of each website where you have a presence.
- State how you would like your profiles to be handled. You may want to completely cancel your profile or keep it up for friends and family to visit and share their thoughts. Some sites allow your heirs to create a memorial profile where others can still see your profile but can't post anything new.
- Give your social media executor a list of all websites where you have a profile, along with your usernames and passwords.
- Stipulate in your will that the online executor should be given a copy of your death certificate. He or she may need this as proof in order for websites to take any actions on your behalf.
We're probably seeing the first wave in how social media is changing the way we think and act about our legacies going forward. For example, Facebook recently began allowing members to post their "organ donor" status, with links to sites where people can learn more about the process. There's also a movement afoot to publicize the need for people to make provisions for pets in their wills; otherwise they could end up in a shelter or worse if you meet an untimely demise.
In case you've been procrastinating about completing a will and other such documents, here's a good motivator: Although wills aren't mandatory, if you don't have one when you die, the state will decide how your estate is settled. Similarly, if you haven't filed financial and healthcare durable powers of attorney, someone else -- not necessarily the person you wish -- will make financial and healthcare decisions on your behalf should an accident or illness render you unable.
Here are a few things that could go wrong if you don't make your wishes known:
- Court-supervised probate could hold up your estate and result in costly fees.
- Because the state usually awards assets to surviving spouses, children and other relatives, your friends and favored charitable institutions could be left out.
- With no will, the state decides guardianship for minor children whose parents have died.
- Your preferences for things like life-support procedures and burial instructions may not be followed exactly.
Here are key documents that can prevent these kinds of scenarios:
Will: Declares who should receive your assets, chooses an executor to handle your estate and names a guardian for your minor children, among other decisions.
Revocable living trust: Creates a trust to which ownership of your assets is transferred. As trustee, you control the trust; as beneficiary, you own its assets. After you die, assets are transferred to your "successor beneficiaries" (heirs) without having to go through probate. Many folks also create a "back-up" or "pour-over" will, which essentially "pours" any newly acquired or additional property they owned at death into their trust, to avoid probate.
Financial durable power of attorney: Specifies who has the legal authority to pay your bills, manage assets and conduct other financial matters if you become incapacitated.
Healthcare durable power of attorney: Assigns someone to make your medical decisions if you're unable. (Assign someone who would closely follow your wishes and can make tough decisions.)
Living will: Tells doctors and hospitals your wishes regarding which medical treatments and life-support procedures you do or don't want. Have your doctor put a copy in your medical file.
A few additional considerations:
- Sign, date and notarize these documents and file for safekeeping.
- Review documents periodically, especially if your family situation changes (marriage, divorce, new child, death of a beneficiary, etc.)
- Compare will or trust beneficiaries to those named in your insurance or retirement plans to eliminate conflicts.
- Before naming an executor or power of attorney, make sure they are up to the task.
- Name alternate beneficiaries and executors in case anyone dies before you.
In this Internet era, your legacy will likely live on long after you die. Do your family a favor and spare them from having to deal with these issues by addressing them now.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.