Your Digital Legacy - What Happens To Your On-Line Stuff When You're Gone?

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People plan, or should plan, for all types of contingencies after their demise; a living will, family trust, a last will and testament, even a durable power of attorney to express your wishes about your demise if you’re alive but not able to do so yourself. But what about your digital life? Who has the authority to deal with these properties (intellectual or otherwise) after you’re gone?

Most responsible people have left professionally drafted and approved instructions about what they want done with their money, worldly possessions, other valued assets, and even their remains. But it’s unlikely that the average person has left instructions about how they want their on-line identities and their contents handled.

Hence, your digital legacy, a.k.a. "what becomes of your on-line sites and materials?", is becoming a major topic of discussion among estate planners and lawyers who have been charged with handling these affairs in your absence.

Since all social media sites require passwords to access them, and we’ve been admonished to death (forgive the pun) about how to protect them, no one can access your accounts to shut them down or even to advise your friends and followers that you will no longer be posting, at least not from this plane. And, because we’re taught to change our on-line passwords frequently, giving your estate’s executor a list of passwords is a cumbersome task; it would seldom be up-to-date.

As a result, it often requires a court order to access the information that you’ve created on your Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Yahoo, eBay, PayPal, Skype, etc. accounts to close them down. (Do you even know how many of these accounts you have, active or otherwise?)

But fret not; this need has created a business opportunity, a hole that’s been filled by companies that specialize in handling your digital legacy after you no longer have a need to post to your Facebook page, or any other site.

Many of these sites offer services that include granting access to your representative, posthumous email services, and on-line memorials where friends and family can share loving thoughts and photographs about you.  

According to their web site: Legacy Locker is a “secure repository for your vital digital property that lets you grant access to online assets for friends and loved ones in the event of loss, death, or disability.” That’s the gist of what these web services are about.

The Digital Beyond is an on-line service where you can find a complete list of companies that offer a variety services; digital estate planning, posthumous emails, and on-line memorial. Helpfully, this site includes a chart that compares these companies to each other in terms of the services that they offer. For example, you might not want an email service posting in your absence, so why pay for it? Some sites listed here are only on-line memorial sites and wouldn’t function as an effective digital legacy service. Companies named “After Steps,” “Asset Lock,” “Chronicle of Life,” “Eternity Message,” “Great Goodbye,” “My Wonderful Life,” “Parting Wishes,” even “Dead Man’s Switch,” give you a sampling of what these sites are about.

It would behoove you to browse around and compare the services, just as you would when looking for an estate attorney to handle your other affairs, then sign on with the one that suits your needs best. Doing so before your family or attorney has to do it will take the pressure off your loved ones to figure it out while they’re adjusting to their loss.

Once you’ve hired a service, here’s hoping you won’t need to use it for a long, long time.

UPDATE: April 12, 2013

Obviously, Google is listening to the media, and perhaps my own tech blog, as they just addressed the issue of what to do with the information you’ve posted on-line through Google’s own services. It’s called “Inactive Account Manager,” which they acknowledge in their statement is an inelegant name, but it’s intent is what’s important, and it seems that they got that mostly right.

With this service turned on, you’re able to predetermine what to do with the information that Google has in your account should something untoward happen to you in an untimely manner. In other words, if you don’t use your Google account within a set number of months (you decided how many), it will automatically delete your account and its content.

It also gives you the ability to notify people that you’ve specified to know that this is happening to your Google information.

The immediate flaw that I can see is that it asks for a way to contact you if your account has been inactive for a month. If I’m in some heavenly (hopefully) afterlife, trust me, my email alerts will be turned off. 

Information contained herein is for guideline purposes only, is not intended as an endorsement of any product, and is no guarantee of the results. 

Image courtesy of Business Today, Legacy Locker, Cirrus Legacy

Copyright © The B. Hammil Company 2012