Access to Digital Assets After Death

Believe it or not, accessing private data after death has historically been an act of hacking. Yeah, imagine having to hack your loved one's accounts to get access to important stuff like checking and savings accounts, bill paying systems, accounting systems, or invoicing systems.

Essentially, survivors would need to impersonate the deceased, guess at passwords or have passwords rotated by a hack to access accounts, of have secure systems compromised to access data.

And legally, the heir or assign of an individual didn't have any rights to the data. That data was owned by the account holder (who is now dead) and there wasn't a legal transference of digital property rights.

However, effective June 2016 in the State of Washington, this has changed with the adoption of 11.120 RCW Uniform Fiduciary Access to to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA).

UFADAA establishes a standard process for a fiduciary to access the secured digital assets of the deceased found on their devices (computers and mobile devices) and their online accounts.

This special access is limited: it grants the fiduciary access to essentially collect the data and close the account; it doesn't allow for the account of the deceased account to survive forever. 

UFADAA also allows for data to be collected from the principal, accumulated by a designated custodian of the data, cataloged, and held in a trust. It also allows the principal to shield some kinds of data from their fiduciary.

Some companies are more progressive on these matters - like Facebook - allow you to identify legacy accounts: fiduciaries on Facebook that would presumably survive the deceased and could get access to the account to memorialize it. Most companies are far behind this curve of being able to identify others who could access their digital assets after death.

The court can assign data custodians and so can businesses and individuals. However, it's recommended that a will/Power of Attorney specifically declare UFADDA rights.

If you're concerned about this - and if you own a business, you'd want to be concerned about this - you'd want to speak to your attorney about including UFADDA rights into your succession planning.

Also, you'd want to check online services that offer legacy accounts (or some means of designating authorized survivors) and set those up.

And finally, you'd want to grant some degree of access to your password manager for the fiduciary following your demise. Most password manager services allow for a legacy account to be designated; otherwise, a master password, written on paper, stored in a sealed envelope, and safeguarded in a safe place, may also suffice (a broken seal may be a visual trigger to reset passwords).