When death comes, survivors cope with digital afterlife

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Mixed-media artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo's installations on display at the Hereafter Institute -- a fictional, high-tech funeral home -- include digital video lockets, vinyl pressings from online text and virtual reality reconstructions. (Photo by Duncan Cheng)
Leisha Till
Mixed-media artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo's installations on display at the Hereafter Institute -- a fictional, high-tech funeral home -- include digital video lockets, vinyl pressings from online text and virtual reality reconstructions. (Photo by Duncan Cheng)
Mixed-media artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo's installations on display at the Hereafter Institute -- a fictional, high-tech funeral home -- include digital video lockets, vinyl pressings from online text and virtual reality reconstructions. (Photo by Duncan Cheng)
Mixed-media artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo's installations on display at the Hereafter Institute -- a fictional, high-tech funeral home -- include digital video lockets, vinyl pressings from online text and virtual reality reconstructions. (Photo by Duncan Cheng)

As more people move their lives online, new problems are presenting themselves after we die: Who can access our accounts, and what will happen to them?

"All of us have digital accounts nowadays," said Dan Marsh, a Vancouver estate planning attorney.

The issue of digital accounts and content -- known in the legal world as assets -- is becoming more troublesome, he said, as companies, such as banks, continue to encourage people to go paperless.

"More and more people have their financial accounts only online. And that increases every day," Marsh said.

He recommends people get a power of attorney and set up a will or trust. However, he said he recognizes that only a small portion of the population does this.

At the very least, Marsh said online users should read the fine print on the terms-of-service-agreements for sites. Many online companies provide tools to help determine what they can release to fiduciaries -- people appointed to manage the deceased's property.

"You as a user have the right to say what you want disclosed. If you don't do anything, then it gets deleted," Marsh said.

The Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which was passed into Washington law last year, lays the groundwork for fiduciaries trying to access electronic information held by internet providers. But to assist in the process, Marsh said all online users should leave an instruction letter concerning their digital assets.

• List the accounts you wish to have deleted and provide instructions on how to do so.

• Consider saving some accounts on a disc or memory stick and store them in a safe place.

• If you have photos that you store on the internet, make a backup on a disk drive or disc.

There are no words to describe what Larry Till felt after his wife died unexpectedly last August. He says “shocked” comes the closest.

Leisha Till was only 40 years old when she died from a brain aneurysm at her Vancouver home. She was up late, reading a book on her tablet. Larry Till found her in the morning.

“It was instant as far as anyone can tell. Nothing could have prepared us for this,” her husband of 23 years said.

Like an estimated two-thirds of Americans, the Tills did not have a will or trust.

“It was such a chaotic time. We didn’t really think things out. We were young,” Larry Till added. “We knew we wanted to be cremated and that’s as far as it went.”

But amid his grief and the chaos, Till had something else to think about: His wife left behind at least a dozen online accounts that needed to be dealt with immediately.

With the rise of the internet — and social media — people’s digital presence has created another layer to consider when trying to bring a loved one’s life to a graceful close. If not handled properly that digital life can create complications for those left behind who are still grappling with the concept of literal and virtual death.

Logged in

Till says he was fortunate. He was able to access many of his wife’s accounts, such as email and Facebook, because she stayed logged in to those accounts on her tablet.

Without that, he said he “would have been in the dark on so many things.”

“We knew each others’ unlock patterns so accessing the information was painless. I had no idea how important this was,” Till wrote in an email.

Through her email, Till tracked down some of his wife’s online accounts and notified those companies of her passing so they could close them. He also contacted the online college where she was enrolled. Till said the institution and many of the online companies have processes in place to help survivors during difficult times.

Till said he only handled about a dozen of his wife’s online accounts, but he’s certain she had many more. “I took care of what I needed to do,” he said.

It took months to sort out everything, Till said, and he’s still dealing with issues, namely their mortgage. The couple’s mortgage was in Leisha Till’s name and held by her bank.

Larry Till said the entire experience has prompted him to think about his own digital life. He’s put together a spreadsheet with accounts, numbers and passwords, as well as a folder with important physical documents.

“This could have happened to any of my friends. And when I think about it, they probably don’t have their wife’s passwords,” Till said. “It’s important for people to think about this ahead of time.”

A need for uniformity

More people everyday are turning to digital storage for their property.

In fact, 99 percent of American adults ages 18 to 29 use the internet; 96 percent ages 30 to 49; 87 percent ages 50 to 64; and 64 percent age 65 and older, according to 2016 statistics from Pew Research Center.

The average online user has 25 accounts that require passwords and roughly 6 1/2 passwords, each shared across approximately four different sites, a 2007 Microsoft study found.

These digital accounts — known in the legal world as assets — include online banking, photos, email and social media profiles.

When family members or other executors don’t have access to the deceased’s digital assets, and no instructions are left behind, complications arise.

“If you die without a will, you’re leaving a mess for your family,” said Dene Grigar, director of Washington State University Vancouver’s Creative Media & Digital Culture Program. “I’m going to leave a mess no matter what. It’s a question of how much of a mess.”

She said the problem is that online users are not taking care of their digital afterlife. People need to make arrangements ahead of time for handling their digital assets, just like they would for their physical belongings.

“People can’t just do what they want with your stuff when you die. And they shouldn’t be able to in the virtual world either,” she said.

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, outlining the process of handling someone’s digital assets upon their death or if they become incapacitated. A fiduciary is someone appointed to manage the property — now to include digital property — of another person.

Access issues

Widespread use of the internet is changing how electronic information is used and stored. Internet service providers, such as Facebook, maintain custody of digital assets and keep them secure by a terms-of-service-agreement with the user. The problem is that fiduciaries often need access to these assets — particularly in the case of online banking — to manage them after their loved one has died.

“I think the problem is kind of only beginning and is only going to get more prevalent, because of the nature of the internet and how it’s become a big part of people’s lives,” said Ben Orzeske, chief counsel with the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization made up of volunteer lawyers from across the U.S. that drafted the model law.

The Uniform Law Commission started working on the act in 2012 after hearing stories from people who were having trouble accessing loved ones’ digital accounts.

“It seemed there was a need for a law and uniformity in the law,” Orzeske said.

Since last year, 25 states have enacted the law, and it’s been introduced in another 18 states and Washington D.C.

As internet use increases, it creates more opportunities for scammers, hackers and identity thieves to access online accounts.

Of 300 identity theft victims surveyed across 40 states, 93 percent reported a high level of online activity, ranging from the use of email to using apps to conduct business, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that conducts the annual survey.

“Once a loved one passes away his (or) her online accounts will continue to live on unless the executor of the estate or next of kin takes action,” Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, wrote in an email. “Unattended information left in the digital world, through online accounts, can leave more pieces of an identity puzzle for identity thieves to put together and use for financial gain.”

Our digital deaths

It’s only in recent years that people have needed to consider their virtual death, which we see most often played out on social media.

When Pew began tracking social media use in 2005, only 5 percent of American adults used at least one platform. Now, approximately 69 percent of American adults use some type of social media; Facebook remains the most widely used platform.

The issue first came to the attention of Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, a mixed-media artist, after seeing that social media accounts of deceased friends were alive. One friend, a DJ, had set up auto tweets on Twitter before his death to encourage followers to come to shows.

“It’s this painful reminder, but there’s also something strange about it because this person is still talking through technology after they’ve passed away,” Barcia-Colombo said.

Inspired by this concept, he spent a year and a half researching digital death and learned that there’s no practice surrounding it in our culture.

“We are the generation that will deal with death in public more than anyone has in the last 100 years,” Barcia-Colombo said. “What’s happening on social media sites is reflective of how our grieving process is shifting. We don’t just want it to end suddenly.”

With a grant from the Art and Technology Lab at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Barcia-Colombo created the Hereafter Institute — a fictional, high-tech funeral home of sorts featuring functional artwork: digital video lockets, vinyl pressings from Facebook text and virtual reality reconstructions.

Leaving behind a digital presence presents an interesting problem, he said, because some people have placed their entire lives online. If no instructions are left for online companies or family, what happens to our stuff after we die? Is the answer important?

“This is going to become a part of that procedure now. You will have to think about digital presence and legacy, just like you’d have to pick out a coffin or casket,” he said.

Preserving digital afterlife

For Larry Till, it was important to convert Leisha’s Facebook profile into an “In Remembrance” page.

Many of her Facebook friends kept getting notifications for things, he said, and it was upsetting. The memorial option disables those notifications.

“This was important to me, because I didn’t want myself, my kids or her friends and family to get those ‘remember how happy you two were on this day’ messages on our Facebook feeds,” Till wrote in an email.

Still, it was equally important to him to keep Leisha Till’s memory alive.

“I want to keep going back to it. I want to keep her pictures. I want her friends to go to it. They post and so do I,” he said.

Larry Till said all he had to do to convert the page was send a copy of his wife’s death certificate and his identification to Facebook.

Facebook users can also contact the company in advance if they’d like to have their account memorialized or permanently deleted after they die. No one can log into a memorialized account unless the account holder designated a legacy contact to manage it.

“A lot of us want to cheat death by preserving our stuff,” Grigar said.

“When someone dies then that person leaves his or her digital footprint in that space, and a lot of times, we memorialize those spaces,” she said. “You can pay homage to them. It’s like going to a cemetery. There’s this kind of human need to stay connected to the dead.”