Want to know what happens to your online accounts when you die? Explore how to protect and pass on your digital legacy to the next generation.
Digital life is a life of streamlined convenience. The days of trekking to the shops to buy the next must-have album are now a fond but distant memory.
It’s not just music that has moved from a tangible, physical product to something more abstract, either. Films and books are now commonly handled entirely digitally, as well as big chunks of your social life.
But what happens when you’re no longer here to look after all this? What happens to your online accounts when you die? Let’s take a look at what might make up your digital estate, and how best to protect your personal data after you’re gone. Let’s talk about your digital legacy!
What’s a digital legacy?
When we typically think of our estates, our legacy, we think of material things with traditional real-world value; property, money, and heirlooms. Your digital legacy is exactly the same, but it refers to any aspect of your online life which you might want to pass onto the next generation.
Exactly what your digital assets might include will be unique to you, but it might help to break them down into three categories:
- Assets with monetary value. As we move towards conducting more business digitally, you’re going to end up with more of a financial digital presence.
- Assets with social value. Social media accounts, your public-facing digital presence, take on a very different dimension when you die.
- Assets with sentimental value. Downloaded music or digital photo albums may not be worth big bucks, but they serve as a poignant reminder of happy times.
Making a digital will
Listing your assets is a great start, but you need to record them in a format which makes it easy for people to sort out. Thankfully, the last will and testament is a time-honoured template you can apply to your online legacy without reinventing the format. In effect, you’re creating a digital will.
This can be kept as part of your own will, or as a completely different document, depending on who’ll be handling it when you die. If you choose to keep them as two separate documents, remember to keep both updated alongside one another. It’s likely your traditional will is going to override your digital one, so make sure they both agree with one another.
Protecting your passwords
In order for your named beneficiary to access the assets you list, they’re going to need passwords. Leaving these lying around in a document – one which is expressly intended for people other than yourself to read – might be risky, but there are steps you can take to keep things secure.
Password management software works by collecting passwords for all your digital services, randomising them so that no two are alike, and protecting them all with one master password; the only thing you need to worry about keeping safe.
Remember to include any two-step verification data or passcodes alongside access to your master password.
Data after death
So, what happens to your online accounts when you die? Where possible, you might want to hand them down so that your loved ones can benefit from them, but is this always possible? That depends on the service in question.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea of the distinction between different service providers when it comes to what they do with your all-important data.
Digital finance accounts are, in the grand scheme of things, still fairly new. Questions like ‘does PayPal contribute to the size of my estate?’ are best answered by a legal professional on a case-by-case basis. Some of these services are still evolving, so the fine details could change dramatically with time. Speaking of which…
Cryptocurrency accounts, like Bitcoin, can be transferred to your next of kin in a pretty straightforward manner. That is, if your beneficiary knows about it.
With emerging wealth platforms like this, it’s vital to leave instructions for relatives, especially older or less tech-savvy ones, who might not know the true value of what is, to them, just a random password they find on your computer.
Betting accounts are tricky, as according to GOV.UK, funds are held in a trust, and members are just beneficiaries of this trust. Each betting site will have its own process for dealing with deceased persons’ accounts, but they’re tight-lipped about what these are.
Ladbrokes, for example, only say they need to see ‘documents’ before they can help. While this is unhelpfully vague, contacting a betting site’s customer service department is a good way to get started.
Online bank accounts and savings accounts are no different to the old-school physical ones, it’s just a question of how you access them.
In light of this, your bank account isn’t technically part of your digital legacy, although you’ll want to leave your online login details to make things easier for the executor of your estate. Either way, your bank will have clear processes for closing a deceased person’s account.
PayPal accounts are made really easy for executors to close after a person dies. On their website, they outline fully updated guidance for what they need to see, and how to get it to them. However, as of the time of writing this does require faxing documents over, which might be a problem for those of us who haven’t seen a fax machine in a while.
Facebook lets you specify in advance of your death how you’d like your account to be handled. You can have it memorialised, which will turn your profile into a digital remembrance tribute, or you can opt to have it deleted. This can be specified in your Facebook settings menu.
Instagram lets loved ones opt to memorialise or delete a deceased person’s account, but they will need to see proof of death. This doesn’t need to be a copy of the death certificate, it can be a link to an obituary, which can be submitted via their help centre.
LinkedIn is intended for professional purposes, so there’s less of an urge to memorialise or transfer an account. Instead, loved ones can request your account be deleted, again by contacting LinkedIn support.
Snapchat and Tumblr do not offer advance digital legacy planning as of the time of writing. It’s possible that accounts can be closed by contacting them directly, but this would be at each platform’s discretion.
Gmail accounts nowadays are linked to a number of other services, including YouTube. As Google seeks to become the gateway login to people’s online experiences, they’ve become very careful about the way they handle deleting accounts.
Relatives of a deceased person can request the closure of an account, the transfer of funds out of that account, or a release of all its associated data, but only after a lengthy review process. This process can be started by contacting Google support.
Outlook, Hotmail, and other Microsoft products like Skype are notoriously difficult to access if you don’t have access to a password, or at least a recovery email address.
Microsoft’s support forums are a labyrinth of people requesting help accessing the accounts of deceased relatives, and being bounced from pillar to post. If you use one of these services, we strongly advise you to double check you’ve included all the relevant login details in your digital will.
Yahoo are strict when it comes to honouring the agreement between themselves and the original user. As per their terms and conditions, accounts – and the data they contain – can’t be transferred between people.
Loved ones can request the closure of an account, along with the suspension of any payments being made from it, via Yahoo Help.
If you own and operate a website, continuing that site’s work once you’re gone might be an important priority for you. Here, you may want to appoint a successor to run your website as part of your digital will.
How they take over running your site will depend on the hosting company you use:
Airmiles accounts like Avios, BA Executive, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and the like take a case-by-case approach. According to an investigation by This is Money, most airmiles providers’ terms and conditions state that miles you build up are exclusive to yourself and cannot be transferred.
However, it’s not unheard of for them to listen to an appeal from the executor of an estate, especially when a lot of miles have been collected, and transfer them. However, this is solely at the airline’s discretion.
Nectar and Tesco Clubcard accounts are, according to their terms and conditions (which you can read here for Nectar and here for Tesco), classed as part of your estate. That makes it nice and simple to pass your outstanding balance for either onto your loved ones by including it in your will and having your executor contact either directly.
Services like Netflix and Spotify are explicitly streaming services. By this, they mean that you don’t download content in order to access it, you stream it direct from their servers.
This means that you don’t actually ‘own’ any of the music you listen to, so it can’t be transferred to a beneficiary when you die.
To close an account like this, you’ll just need to contact each service’s customer support people, Spotify are here, and you can call Netflix direct on 0800 096 8879.
This applies to any subscription streaming service, and even a mobile phone contract. If you’re leasing a service, rather than a product, customer service will be able to help.
What happens to your iTunes account once you die? This is the biggest contemporary example of a service which does actually offer you the ability to purchase and download music. So, surely this music can be transferred to a beneficiary if you wish?
Well, actually, no. In the iTunes terms and conditions (you’ve read those, right?), they specify ‘no right of survivorship.’ This means that, even though you can physically download the music to any device you wish after buying it, you’re still technically just leasing it from Apple for the duration of your life.
You can close down and delete the account of a deceased person, through Apple customer services, but it might not be in your best interests to do so. To keep the music that you paid for, you may want to just include the password to your iTunes account in your will.
Amazon makes it unclear what their policy is regarding transferring data between people. Anyone carrying out the instructions in your digital will should go to Amazon’s customer service, select ‘contact us’ and follow these steps:
- Log in with their own Amazon account.
- Select ‘something else’ under the ‘what can we help you with’ field.
- Select ‘more non-order questions’ under the ‘tell us more about your issue’ field.
- Again, select ‘more non-order questions’ from the new pull-down menu, to create a blank box where they can type in their issue.
- Request whether they’d like to be contacted via email, phone, or live chat.
eBay customer service is spread across the world, so getting a straight answer about closing or transferring a deceased person’s account can be difficult. The executor of your estate is likely to have the easiest time contacting their HQ by post, this is something you should include in your digital will, along with their address:
Where your digital legacy is concerned, it’s useful to understand the difference between cloud and physical storage.
Increasingly, digital services store all your account data in the cloud and don’t actually sell you a physical product. Transferring or closing these accounts following someone’s death can generally only be done by the company themselves.
Physical data storage (devices you own yourself), can form part of your digital legacy, but tend not to relate to accounts or services which need to be transferred between people. Physical storage includes, but is not limited to:
Useful digital inheritance tools
As the need for keeping track of our digital legacy grows, several tools have been developed to help us do just that, with more, no doubt on the way.
The Safe4 Digital Inheritance Vault functions, as you might guess, as a vault in which to store everything to do with your inheritance – digital or otherwise. In effect, it’s a cloud storage drive which can be accessed only by you or your will writer, unless you choose to grant access to other people, such as your beneficiary.
It also lets you partition the allocated space (of which there’s a lot, you get 1 gigabyte) to create an area which only you can see, not even your will writer.
Alternatively, My Digital Executor is a service which applies the traditional principles of legal confidentiality to the idea of your digital legacy. Instead of providing a digital vault, you’re assigned a solicitor whose job it is to see that your wishes regarding your online presence are respected when you die.
They reason that any digital holding place containing all of someone’s sensitive information carries the risk, however small, of being compromised, so they store nothing online. The specialist expertise you get access to with this service works with the executor of your estate to divvy up your digital legacy.
You’ll notice that these two approaches are as different as night and day. One places trust in the cloud, making it fast and convenient for you to access your information. The other goes for absolute security. It’s up to you which tool – or service – you feel more comfortable with.
Protect what matters most with low-cost Life Insurance
Here at Beagle Street, we’re committed to helping people plan for the future – financially protecting their loved ones with the Life Insurance policy that’s right for them.
That means we stay ahead of the curve, building cover around how people live their lives. Our free will writing service can help you track exactly what you want to leave for those closest to you, including your digital legacy.
Meanwhile, you can use our fast online quote tool to get a glimpse at how our Life Insurance could work for you. Or, if you fancy a chat, contact Beagle Street and speak to our friendly, impartial team of experts to discuss your options.