It’s incredible how much time we spend online. I recently read an article that the average person has close to 100 online accounts; whether it be social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, other applications like Gmail and Amazon, online bank accounts, and yes, even the Pokemon Go app. Generally, posts, emails and other content contained on these accounts are considered to be a user’s “digital property.” Yet, what happens to these accounts when the user passes away or becomes disabled? Do they just disappear? Typically, website account providers require that users “sign” a user agreement upon creating an account, many of which are so long and dense most people don’t even take the time to read them. Often contained in these agreements is a provision that restricts access to the accounts to only the original user. In that case, if the user dies or becomes permanently disabled, the account may continue to exist and remain dormant without anyone having the ability to manage it. Because of the restriction to the original user, the account could not be accessed even if a loved one requested access from the website provider as a personal representative of the user’s estate or as the user’s power of attorney.
Wisconsin’s Digital Property Act
To address this problem, in mid-2016, Wisconsin passed the “Wisconsin Digital Property Act,” (codified in Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 711). The act empowers individuals to decide how their online accounts will be administered by their personal representative or power of attorney upon their death or disability.
One of the most important aspects of the new law is its provision allowing an individual to “opt-in” to have the law govern the individual’s digital property. The law creates a three tiered system for designating who may have access to the user’s digital property contained on the account. First, an individual can elect to use an “online tool.” An online tool is a setting established by a website or app provider like Facebook or Google that allows the user, right from their online account settings, to designate the person who they want to have access to their account in the event of their death of disability. Second, if the website does not have an “online tool”, an individual can designate who can access their account in an estate planning document such as a will or trust. If you opt-in to the law through either option, the website provider must grant your designated person access to the account to manage your digital property. Otherwise, the usually restrictive user agreement governs whether others can access your accounts to manage your digital property.
How the Act Affects You
I checked out Facebook’s online tool, one of the few sites that even has one. They call it a “Legacy Contact.” You can access it by going to Settings>Security>Legacy Contact. There is an option to designate someone to access your account, or alternatively, to have Facebook delete your account upon your death. For other sites that don’t offer such an option, the designation must be done in a will or trust.
The Wisconsin Digital Property Act is another example of the law adapting to our changing society. Especially for people with many online accounts (Millennials, that’s you), this new law means it might be time to think about starting (or updating) your estate plan. If you have any questions about how to take advantage of the Wisconsin Digital Property Act, consult an attorney at Schober Schober & Mitchell, S.C. We’d be happy to help.