Estates & Wills & Trusts

Electronic estate trustees a new reality

By Staff

Social media has become such a relevant presence in our lives that we must start thinking about how it's to be dealt with after we die, says Toronto litigator Matthew Urback, whose practice focuses on wills and estates law.

One of the options is to assign an electronic estate trustee, Urback, an associate with Shibley Righton LLP’s Toronto office, tells

“It’s a concept that really is quite new,” he explains. “Only a generation ago, the whole idea would have been crazy.

“An electronic trustee may be named with different considerations in mind than what you might otherwise contemplate for a trustee.”

The concept is slowly becoming a reality and the issue is moving to the forefront by necessity.

He points to Facebook as an example, where a person’s page often turns into a memorial after someone has died. But Facebook has acknowledged that pages of those who have deceased have become an issue so it has created death policies, allowing individuals to set up their preferences for what happens to their profiles after they die. Twitter and LinkedIn have also implemented policies.

But Urback believes those terms of reference could easily change without users knowing.

"Part of the reason that I think it’s beneficial to name someone who is going to be in charge of all of this is to buffer against that possibility,” he says.

The electronic estate trustee would be a close contact who would be in charge of the user’s profile and have specific instructions on how to deal with the digital assets following an individual’s passing.

But because the social media platforms remain in the custody of a third party, the electronic estate trustee's powers are limited, which means that some foresight and planning would be necessary.

Urback says Facebook allows for the appointment of a “legacy contact,” who has limited access to the user’s page after they die. They are given the power to write pinned posts and update a user’s profile, but can’t technically login to the account, remove or change past posts.

Then there’s the issue of how to deal with more finance-related issues. Bank accounts, credit cards and electronic currencies all have passwords associated with them. Even customer loyalty plans, like Air Miles, which have a monetary value, are managed online.

The problem is that people have been encouraged to use different passwords for different accounts. And many organizations have different parameters for password creation.

“You may have all these passwords, so you better make sure someone has this information,” says Urback.

A good place to take care of many of these issues is through the will, he adds.

An electronic estate trustee can hold this information in trust. If all of an individual’s passwords are organized in something like an electronic wallet, the trustee need only have access to the password of the electronic wallet to get the rest.

“I think it’s one of those things that are coming along slowly because people don’t think about it,” says Urback. “It’s so new, and it’s predominantly attached to younger people, so their time hasn't come up just yet.”

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