You’ve probably thought about what will happen to your finances, your possessions and maybe even your real estate when you die. But what about your Facebook account? Or your hard-drive backups?
For the past two decades, most of us in the modern world have gradually shifted our central living space online. That’s 20-ish years of documenting our real-life experiences while also creating entirely new versions of ourselves in countless places online.
These digital lives are basically immortal, so you may as well figure out while you’re still alive what will happen to them after you’re gone.
There are two main things to consider: What will happen to your accounts and what will happen to the data contained therein. For example, you can give someone authority to delete your Google account and to download all your photos stored there after you die.
It’s a grim thought, but like writing a last will and testament, this has become just another part of death preparation.
Many online spaces offer some form of death planning. But this is still a relatively new concept, and some of the most popular destinations on the internet don’t give users a way to plan for their death. In that case, it’s best to establish a plan now with a trusted loved one.
For the websites and services that do offer help, here’s what to know.
Whom do you trust to mind your central online presence after your death? That’s probably the person you want to be your Facebook legacy contact.
This person will be able to write a post that will remain at the top of your profile, update your profile photo and respond to friend requests. You can also allow that person to download an archive of your public activity (including posts, photos and “likes”), but he or she can’t read your messages, so your most intimate secrets will be safe.
Alternatively, you can set your account to delete everything once Facebook is notified of your death.
Facebook legacy contacts, however, will not also have access to your Instagram account (Facebook owns the photo-sharing app). But Instagram accounts can be memorialized or, if requested by a verified family member, deleted.
Google lets you choose up to 10 people to be the executors of your account once you die or your account becomes inactive via its inactive account manager feature.
To set this up, choose an amount of time between sign-ins for your account to be designated “inactive.” Once that threshold is met (for example, you don’t sign into any Google service for a certain number of months), your chosen contact will get a prewritten email from you with, presumably, your wishes for your account.
Unlike your legacy contact on Facebook, you can designate this person to have full access to your Google account, including email and chat histories, and he or she can download the data you specify. (You also have the option not to give that person access to any of it.)
Google also allows you to delete your account and all its data.
Twitter has no equivalent to a legacy contact or a way to plan for your online data after your death. It does, however, let a “verified immediate family member of the deceased” delete your account if that person can provide your death certificate and other official documents.
A similar protocol is in place in the event a user becomes incapacitated, though in that case someone will have to have proof of power of attorney.
In certain circumstances, Twitter says it will consider removing “imagery” of a deceased person, based on “public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content.”
These three networks offer no type of death planning, though all offer some form of account management for the deceased.
LinkedIn will let a verified next-of-kin have an account removed (via this form).
Snapchat said it can delete the account of a deceased person at the request of a next-of-kin (with a death certificate).
And Tumblr will let a next-of-kin request that an account be deleted.
Snapchat and Tumblr declined to say whether they’ll eventually add a similar legacy-contact feature, and LinkedIn said it’s “considering” some form of death planning or account memorialization.
Beyond that, many sites (including Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL) have relatively standard protocols in place for immediate family members to request the deletion of a deceased person’s account.
Online data storage is an especially tricky part of death planning. The industrywide push for privacy and encryption, while great for personal protection, has created its own problems.
“There’s a very real security and privacy implication that can somewhat conflict” with online death planning, said Ahin Thomas, the vice president of marketing for Backblaze, an online backup service. “If you set up a private encryption key — we’re not joking — we don’t have access.”
In one recent case, a widow contacted the company for access to her late husband’s backups, but the data was inaccessible because it had been encrypted.
“It was heartbreaking and sad, and I wish we could’ve done something,” Mr. Thomas said. “But the stuff was encrypted.”
So what can we do? The best advice, Mr. Thomas said, is to simply give the keys to your data to someone you trust. (Some backup services have protocols in place for this. Check with yours.)