Are you Ready for Your Digital Afterlife?

Are you Ready for Your Digital Afterlife?

Are you prepared for your digital afterlife? It’s a more important question than you might think. End of life planning used to be all about “things”. The most important decisions that we needed to make were how to organize our funeral, what to do with our assets and how to prevent legal issues after our passing. Today, much of our life is spent online and, as a result, some of our most important assets are digital. Our photos are digital, our social connections are maintained through Facebook and our email accounts maintain a written record of our lives “in the cloud”. So, this raises an important question: what happens to our online “self” after we die?

If this still seems like a trivial question, think about the following scenarios. What would you like to have happen to your Facebook account after you die? Would it give your family comfort to be able to see a record of your life online? Or, would this cause them emotional pain? Would you like your family to be able to access your email accounts? All of us have secrets. Would you be prepared for your family to know all of yours? If so, who should have access? What about your digital pictures? Would you like your family to have access to them?

It might surprise you to know that not all companies handle this process the same way. Facebook recently added an option for family members to request the creation of a “memorial page” from your personal Facebook page. Some email providers routinely grant access to the accounts of deceased family members, while others make the process extremely difficult. It’s best to be prepared. Even taking the simple step of preparing a list of accounts and passwords that you want your family to have can reduce a great deal of stress.

Here are a few reasons that you should start thinking about your digital afterlife – and several services that can help to manage the process.

Reduce Stress for Your Loved Ones

Losing a family member or close friend is emotionally draining on so many levels. As a result, anything that we can do to simplify the process of managing our “after life” affairs before we pass away is valuable. Planning for your digital afterlife makes your family’s life easier. For example, there are plenty of legitimate reasons that your family members might need to have access to your email accounts after you pass away. Making your wishes known and providing access details can simplify this process and allow your loved ones to focus on celebrating your life.

Manage Your Legacy

Planning for your digital afterlife gives you the opportunity to say your last words on your own terms. For example, you might write instructions in your will that a certain message should be posted to Facebook and your other social media accounts if you pass away. Is there a final message that you would like to give the world? Are there photos that you would like to share with your friends? Planning for your digital afterlife can give you peace of mind that, no matter what happens, your loved ones will know how you feel.

Prevent Vandalism

Too often, after a person dies, their Facebook page becomes a “vandalized, untended grave.” Knowing that no-one is watching, hackers are more than happy to take over your account and make it their own personal message board. Planning for your digital afterlife and making sure that the right members of your family have access is the best protection against this.

If you are convinced that managing your digital afterlife is important, here are a few simple steps that you can take today.

Sixty-and-Me---Digital-Afterlife-1

Specify What to Do with Your Accounts

Would you like your friends and family to be able to post messages on your Facebook page after you die? Or, would you prefer that your Facebook account is completely deleted? Would you like all of your email accounts to be deleted? Are there specific emails that you would like someone to send on your behalf? The best option is to spell out explicitly in your will what you would like to have happen to your digital assets and social media accounts.

Decide Who to Send Messages to

Death is tragic on many levels. But, one of the most frustrating things about it is its unpredictability. What would you tell your friends and family if you knew that you were going to die tomorrow? Are there apologies that you would make? Who would you say thank you to? Is there anyone that you never had the opportunity to tell how much of an impact they made in your life?

Whether you want to send a single message to your entire family or you have specific messages to send to individuals, planning for your digital afterlife can help to ensure that your final thoughts do not disappear quietly into the night.

Thomas Edison once thought that his newly invented phonograph machine would be used to record the last words of dying people – perhaps email will be the ultimate repository of our final thoughts and wishes.

Consider Creating a Video or Photo Album of Legacy Pictures

Another option for sharing your thoughts with your friends and family after you pass away is to create a video or photo album. I once knew someone who was diagnosed with cancer, shortly after the birth of their first child. They decided to create a series of 18 videos, to be opened one per year by his son. Of course, the ultimate decision regarding whether to watch the video will rest with the living, but, at least he had the peace of mind that came from knowing that he would be a part of his son’s life.

Even if your situation is not quite as extreme, you could create a photo album with your favorite memories, to be shared if you pass away. Or, you could record a funny video to help your loved ones remember you full of life and smiling.

Involve the Right Professionals

Planning for your digital afterlife should be a standard part of creating your will and managing your estate. Lawyers are starting to realize the importance of this aspect of estate planning and are including it in their services. If you have not already considered this in your will, take the time to talk with your lawyer to see what they recommend. If you feel uncomfortable giving your passwords and other digital information to a family member, you can also rely on a professional to manage this process for you.

Some people might find it creepy to think about what will happen to their social media accounts after they die. Personally, I find it comforting to know that my legacy will be managed in the way that I want. After all, social media is part of who we are. Our digital connections represent real relationships. Perhaps social media will have an unexpected and lasting purpose. Maybe it will become a permanent home for our fondest memories.

What do you think? Have you considered the profound implications of your digital afterlife? What do you want to have done with your Facebook account after you’re dead? Please join the discussion and “like” and share this article to keep the conversation going.

Watch this video with Jennifer Cairns, founder of eGurus Technology Tutors, in which she covers the issues of Internet safety and privacy, including how to stay safe online.

Navigating the Digital Afterlife

Navigating the Digital Afterlife

There is a digital footprint we leave behind that includes our email accounts, blog posts and social media. The longer we live on the Internet as a society, our every word and action online builds a legacy of the person we are — and in death, the person we were.

Our online accounts hold a lot of items of sentimental value. Important documents are now stored in our emails, and photographs that were in a shoe box, are now stored on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Before our day inevitably comes, a plan for our ever growing digital legacy needs to be in place.

Your Twitter afterlife

Twitter offers verified family members the ability to deactivate accounts of deceased loved ones after they have provided a formal request with identification and copy of the death certificate but they will not provide account access to anyone.

After six months of inactivity, Twitter can decide whether to permanently remove accounts due to prolonged inactivity. Twitter now provides a link on your account settings page to request an archive of your account and Twitter will send you a link with the backup of all of your tweets.

Your Facebook afterlife

Facebook is continually working on ways to deal with those who have passed on by adding a memorializing option and family access features to accounts. When accounts are memorialized, the word “Remembering” is shown next to the person’s name on their profile.

Facebook makes it easy to connect, but not necessarily to disconnect
Facebook makes it easy to connect, but not necessarily to disconnect

Until last year, Facebook only allowed basic memorialized accounts but would not allow the deceased’s family members manage the pages. After many grieving families requested more support and access, Facebook created a “Legacy Contact” option to allow users to choose who can care for their account after they pass. The “Legacy Contact” can now memorialize the account, respond to friend requests, write posts and update profile photos.

Facebook users can preemptively choose the option to have Facebook delete their account in the circumstance they die. While Facebook allows relatives to memorialize the account, they can only see information that the deceased had previously chosen to share with the Legacy Contact.

If you’re worried about the family possibly losing access to photos and other Facebook information, it’s a good idea to use Facebook’s backup feature by clicking on “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

Policies of other online accounts

Gmail and YouTube will allow email accounts accessed only if the family members meet requirements but users can plan ahead by telling Gmail who they would like to have access to their information by setting up the “Inactive Account Manager” for the account.

Yahoo seems to be one of the more strict email services about account privacy. They will not give access of accounts to loved ones and their policy is to close the account upon request. In their terms of use, they make it clear: “No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death.”

Instagram will not give access to accounts but they will memorialize the account if a family member provides proof of death via a link to an obituary or news article about the death.

Instagram allows users' families to assume responsibility after a loved ones' death
Instagram allows users’ families to assume responsibility after a loved ones’ death

While sorting out the affairs, it is best to not wait too long before figuring out one’s digital real estate. Leaving a password book and digital estate plan with your will in your safe deposit box or home safe could save your family a lot of headaches.

Online grieving and giving

Sadly, social media gives friends a false sense of initiative by expressing words of remorse on social media pages but often they don’t take a step further to genuinely help the family.

“Hash tagging #stophunger is just not the same as, like my church St. Peter’s in Olney, doing many activities to actually put food on the tables of poor families. It’s great to send a consoling thought or letting someone know you are praying for them, but to actually seeing if they need a meal or help with something is entirely different,” psychologist Dr. Richard Lanham, Jr. told LifeZette.

Dr. Lanham believes that helping friends with the grieving process requires more than a Facebook “like” but actively “asking to set up a time to come over” or inviting them out.

Alternatively, social media can help healing by creating a community of action through helping spread the word about funeral details and how friends can help support the family.

When beloved radio host Austin Hill passed away in 2015, his family setup a college fund on YouCaring.com for his high school senior son. Fans of his show shared the site on social media and raised thousands of dollars for the family.

Another example of social media helping a family in need was when journalist and young mother Mary Katharine Ham lost her husband in a tragic accident. Social media fans pressed their friends to help raise thousands of dollars to help her daughter and unborn child on GoFundMe.

Planning For The Unthinkable

If you don’t plan how to hand over your digital estate, it could leave your mourning spouse or family unsure what to do or even how to get into all of your internet and social media accounts. Now is the time to plan the digital inheritance of your online presence.

Who owns your digital afterlife?

Who owns your digital afterlife?

When a landlord discovered the body of bestselling novelist Marsha Mehran last year in a seaside Irish cottage, the 36-year-old had left behind a trove of literary work.

Some of it, such as the international hit “Pomegranate Soup,” can be found in libraries and bookstores around the world. Other writings were stuck in the Internet cloud, including a password-protected account that only Google knew how to open. What happens to our emails, online searches, or — in Mehran’s case — digital manuscripts, when we die? It took costly legal maneuvers this summer stretching from Australia to Silicon Valley for her grieving father to find out.

Iranian American novelist Marsha Mehran, seen in an undated file photo. The 36-year-old author of the international bestsellers "Pomegranate
Iranian American novelist Marsha Mehran, seen in an undated file photo. The 36-year-old author of the international bestsellers “Pomegranate Soup” and “Rosewater and Soda Bread” died in 2014. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo)

“I wanted to know if Marsha left any notes, anything about her sickness, or about what was going on in the last year or two,” said Abbas Mehran. “What’s the difference between the notebook my daughter left for me, with all the secrets of life, and the digital account that Google has?”A surge of families struggling with similar questions is driving a behind-the-scenes political battle between tech companies and estate lawyers over who gets the keys to someone’s digital afterlife.

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In California, lawmakers will vote in September on a bill backed by Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and a lobby group that represents Google, Microsoft and Apple. Assembly Bill 691 would deny families access to emails of someone who died unless a court finds the person had consented to passing them on to heirs; other digital assets such as photos and documents would also be restricted, with an exception for recent files that affect an estate’s finances. By favoring personal privacy over a family’s wishes, the companies hope to appeal to the unspoken will of their users while also lessening the bureaucratic hassle of complying with millions of posthumous requests.”Most people expect the contents of these online communications to remain private, even after they pass away,” wrote the bill’s author, Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier. “According to a recent Zogby poll, over 70 percent of Americans say their private online communications and photos should remain private after they die,” unless they gave prior consent to release their data. As it has with other laws, California could set a national precedent. But other states are looking to adopt competing legislation favored by the estate lawyers who represent families of the deceased, and want to give survivors broad rights to access digital data.

Describing Calderon’s bill as “written by and for technology companies,” Evan Carroll, co-author of the book “Your Digital Afterlife,” said it “goes against the way estate law has worked for a long time” by restricting access to a deceased person’s online accounts without prior consent.

“Many of our privacy rights expire when we pass away,” Carroll said. “Sometimes a family says, ‘I don’t want to read his or her emails. I want my memories the way they are.’ That’s completely valid. But certainly an archivist would argue that often just as important as the manuscript (are) all the notes and correspondence. It reveals more about the author’s thought process and the decisions that were made, how the work came together and what the author was thinking.”

Some companies, such as Yahoo, destroy everything and reveal nothing after a user dies. Others take a case-by-case approach. Facebook and Google now have online tools that allow users to choose their digital heirs and how much they want preserved or deleted upon death.

Marsha Mehran did not take any action to preserve her Google, Yahoo or Hotmail accounts — most 30-somethings don’t.

But she also wasn’t a typical 30-something. Nearly a decade before her death, Mehran catapulted to literary stardom with her debut novel “Pomegranate Soup,” published in 2005 and now scheduled to become a feature film.

Her works culled from her peripatetic life. Born in Iran before the 1979 Revolution that forced her family to flee, raised in Argentina, Florida and Australia, she fell in love with an Irish bartender in New York City and lived with him in Ireland and Brooklyn. The married couple ran their own grass-roots publicity campaign before Random House connected Mehran with professional publicist Lanie Shapiro.

“It might sound strange or even silly to say, but there was a little bit of magic to her,” Shapiro said in an interview. “She was one of those people who just lights up a room when she walks into the room.”

Her success continued in 2008 with a sequel, “Rosewater and Soda Bread.”

But her father said Mehran also suffered personal turmoil in the last years of her life. He blames much of her emotional distress on U.S. immigration officials in Ireland who denied her a visa to return to the United States. Her husband helped fight her immigration battles, but eventually they grew apart and divorced.

Mehran moved to a vacation cottage overlooking northwest Ireland’s Clew Bay in mid-January 2014, living alone and with little contact with neighbors or anyone else. It was in the shadow of Croagh Patrick, the same mountain that loomed over the fictional setting of her bestselling novels. She told her landlord that she had come back to write another book, according to documents provided to this newspaper by the coroner’s office of southern County Mayo.

When her landlord tried to contact her about rent issues in April 2014, Mehran explained that she was sick and had been vomiting blood for weeks.

“I’ll get back to you in a few days,” Mehran wrote.

The landlord offered to help and kept calling and texting for about two weeks, receiving no response. She finally let herself into the trash-strewn cottage, discovering Mehran’s body facedown, wearing only a cardigan. Along with her digital and computer records, her father said she had left Post-it notes strewn about describing story characters and other literary details.

“She had apparently thrown herself completely into writing,” the landlord wrote in a sworn document.

An inquest completed in mid-December ruled out foul play but was otherwise inconclusive, declaring: “The medical cause of death is underlying diseases which are unknown.”

Abbas Mehran this year became determined to recover whatever lost literary work could be found in his daughter’s digital archives, and he hoped to trace her Web footprints to some clues that would explain her physical and mental deterioration. He first needed access to her Chromebook, a laptop running Google’s Chrome operating system.

He wrote four emails to Google, receiving no answers. He finally reached a support hotline, finding helpers who “had some humanity, a sense of human feelings about my situation,” he said by phone recently from Boolarra, the small town where he lives in southeast Australia. He learned that he would need to show Google a court order to get access.

Both Calderon, who introduced the California bill, and the estate lawyers who want more power for executors say this is the kind of legal turmoil they are trying to reduce.

Carroll said lawmakers should think of online accounts as holding memories, not just private communications.

Tech company lobbyists, while they prefer the California bill, have been working hard this summer to win concessions from the nonprofit Uniform Law Commission, run by lawyers appointed by each state who craft language that can be adopted nationwide. The commission’s earliest draft would have given executors access to the content of emails of the deceased, even without their prior consent.

But tech companies and privacy groups quietly pushed back, and the commission has come up with compromise language to be published next month that gets closer to the California bill in deferring to user privacy.

“We came to understand that a lot of people view email a lot differently (from paper mail),” said the commission’s Ben Orezske, noting that digital accounts automatically archive but people save only the most important paper documents.

As the negotiations reached a boiling point this summer, they were of little help to Mehran, who was struggling to navigate the arcane system of current laws and corporate policies.

He searched for help online and found one U.S. lawyer, paying him $1,000 only to discover that the work would cost another $10,000. So he kept looking.

“I went searching and I found Kafka,” Mehran said.

Not Franz Kafka, though something about Mehran’s nightmarish wrangling with an invisible, omnipresent power seemed a little Kafkaesque. And the Prague writer had his own conflicted feelings about posthumous writings, most of which would never have been published had a friend observed his wishes.

“Everything I leave behind in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters, from others and my own, sketches, and so forth, to be burned unread and to the last page,” Kafka wrote to the man who would later publish his greatest writings.

But no, the Kafka who came to Mehran’s rescue was Joe Kafka, a San Jose lawyer and self-published writer.

“I was lucky to find Mr. Kafka, who was very brilliant, very efficient, very effective,” Mehran said.

In June, Mehran filed a lawsuit against Google in Santa Clara County Superior Court seeking access to his daughter’s Google Drive account. He limited his request to documents, believing that Google would object to disclosing the emails. After several weeks of negotiations, Google complied with his request, sending a CD to Kafka, who mailed it to Australia this month.

Mehran was overjoyed when he inserted the disc and found more than 200 documents. But he grew nervous as he discovered that many were empty, or redundant.

His daughter’s last work, “The Saturday School of Beauty” (known as the “The Margaret Thatcher School of Beauty” in Australia), was nearly complete and already in the hands of publishers before her death. It will go on sale in the United States after Labor Day. Her father also found other writings in her Google files. One was a new work, which she had named “Fairytale of New York,” apparently after the bawdy Christmas song by Irish band The Pogues, but it was in its earliest stages.

The documents also included excerpts from “Pistachio Rain,” expected to be the third in a seven-part series that began with “Pomegranate Soup.” But her father said it was at most 30 percent finished.

“I can just see from the documents that she had been sick,” he said a day after opening the files. “She started something but could not continue. ”

It hurt to read.

“I was crying, crying so much,” he said.

He wondered if he missed important writings or clues to her death, if he should have fought harder for her emails instead. Now, everything was lost in the cloud. Or it never existed.

Contact Matt O’Brien at 408-920-5011. Follow him at Twitter.com/Mattoyeah.

Your digital will

A user’s guide to how different Internet companies treat our digital data when we die: Google: First to create an “Inactive Account Manager” tool to choose who should have access to emails, photos, documents, YouTube videos and other information when you die, and whether you want your account to be deleted. If you don’t take action, family members will typically need a court order to access your files.Facebook: Users can choose if they want their account memorialized (setting up a permanent or temporary online memorial) or permanently deleted from the social network after they die.
Yahoo: Deletes inactive accounts and will not disclose a user’s files upon death, citing the privacy terms each user agrees to before signing up for account.
Microsoft: Deletes inactive Outlook/Hotmail accounts; discloses some data to heirs upon request or court order.
Twitter: Deletes account upon request if a user is known to be dead; does not provide anyone else access to account.

Death in the Internet age: How to prepare for a digital afterlife

Death in the Internet age: How to prepare for a digital afterlife

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Death is a haunting thought no matter what. But for those of us living blissfully in the Internet age of social networks and email accounts, mortality becomes even more terrifying when we tack on the fate of our digital existence.

Inspired by the 2011 Fukushima accident, the recent euRathlon outdoor robotics competition set out to test how well robots cope with realistic mock emergency-response situations.

Without the proper amount preparedness and clear-headed foresight, a digital life left forsaken might cause a lot of … inconvenience.

Not only are there risks of fraud and identity theft with an unkempt digital afterlife, but there’s also the possibility of exposing our darkest, digital secrets to unsuspecting (or overly curious) loved ones.

OK, maybe we don’t all have secrets lurking in our various inboxes. But anyone hoping to maintain some degree of privacy after death needs to take action before the reaper comes knocking.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other sites have various policies in place to deal with deceased users, so being aware of some of the options will help you maintain control over your information — even from the grave.

Google: The company behind Gmail, YouTube and Google Plus has created a feature called “Inactive Account Manager,” which allows users to decide the fate of their accounts once they are deceased or if the account becomes inactive for a long period of time.

The feature lets users choose to have their data deleted after three, six or 12 months of inactivity. It also gives the option of allowing a designated person to receive the data after a set period of time.

Before deleting data, Google will send a warning to a secondary email address or a phone number if one was provided. In instances of death, the warning can also be sent to a loved one.

Facebook: The social networking giant puts a lot of emphasis on user privacy, and this carries on even after a user dies. Facebook gives users the option to select a “legacy contact” to look after accounts, postmortem.

However, a loved one must request that an account be “memorialized” in the event of a death in order for the legacy contact option to take effect. Even then, no one will be able to log in or modify any settings, such as adding or removing friends or deleting content. Existing privacy settings will also carry over and cannot be changed.

The legacy contact can only write a pinned post, respond to friend requests and update the profile photo through a specific “manage” function. In addition, Facebook won’t show a memorialized account in its “People You May Know” section nor will it send birthday reminders.

Twitter: The microblogging site expressly states that it will not provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.

However, Twitter will deactivate an account if contacted by a family member or a person authorized to act on behalf of an estate. To do so, the person must present Twitter with a death certificate as well as a “brief description of the details that evidence this account belongs to the deceased,” per company policy.

After 30 days, a deactivated Twitter account is permanently deleted. In some instances, Twitter says it may also remove images of deceased individuals that continue to circulate on the site.

Additional legal options: If account safeguards are not in place at the time of death, the issue of account access and data ownership turns into a legal matter — and that can become really convoluted.

According to Hillery Nye, general counsel and chief privacy officer for location-based app maker Glympse, the best case scenario is when someone signs power of attorney (POA) over to a family member or estate executor and states specifically that the POA includes access to digital properties.

“This will allow them to take over or shut down those accounts, as they see fit, and prevent them from being misused,” Nye said. “Without a power of attorney, your heirs will likely have to get a court order to gain this type of authority.”

Nye noted if POA is not specifically applied to digital properties, then the trustee of an estate could potentially gain control over those accounts.

“In most cases, that’s probably not what you want,” Nye said.

So what happens if there is no estate plan or living will? The second best option is to choose a trusted friend or family member and supply them with access information to your various accounts and details on what to do with them.

“We keep telling people to protect their passwords, but in this situation you want to have one person in charge of your digital afterlife,” said Ruth Carter, a social media attorney based in Phoenix. “You want to make sure someone has access to your passwords and can determine who gets the rights to your photos and other content you created.”

For those who make absolutely no preparations for their digital afterlife, the fate of their assets could some day be decided by law. Increasingly, state legislators in the U.S. have been trying to enact policy to address the issue of digital account access after death.

The Uniform Law Commission (ULC), whose members are appointed by state governments to help standardize state laws, has been at the forefront of this issue.

For instance, last year the group endorsed a plan that would give loved ones access to — although not control of — the deceased’s digital accounts, unless otherwise specified through a will.

But the proposal faced strong resistance from Internet service providers who cited concerns based on privacy, federal law and conflicts with terms of service agreements. After the push-back, the ULC revised its proposal, allowing Internet service providers to retain authority to determine how the digital assets are provided.

Yet as of now, only seven states have any type of legislation that deals with digital assets of the deceased. For privacy fans, that’s a scary thought.