Swedish death cleaning: How to declutter your home and life

Swedish death cleaning: How to declutter your home and life

There has been a trend in recent years, both in literature and in life, for Scandinavian concepts that are encapsulated in a single word. Hygge, for example – which is Danish for cosiness, contentment or well-being – dominated the publishing industry in 2016.

Now, the new buzzword on the block is “dostadning” – a hybrid of the Swedish words “death” and “cleaning”. How much these fad words are actually a part of Scandinavian culture is debatable, but dostadning is the new phenomenon outlined in Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. In Europe, the book has already occupied a good deal of reviewing space and according to Time magazine, dostadning will be the hot new trend stateside in 2018.

Magnusson’s book chimes with the current anxiety about clutter in the 21st century. Dostadning advocates the proactive and mindful clearing out of possessions before death. The idea is that it saves relatives the onerous task of making decisions about what to keep and what to throw or give away. The book reflects the simple fact that we are all living longer lives. This results, of course, in more stuff.

Digital death

But it also means we have more time to get rid of things. We can start planning for our death by slimming down what we leave behind – shedding unnecessary objects in favour of what we actually need. It is the antithesis, perhaps, of the ancient Egyptian tradition of being buried with things that might accompany us into the afterlife.

Magnusson’s top tips for dostadning focus mostly on material possessions – though she suggests keeping a book of passwords for family so they can access online data more easily. But this is no straightforward task, given that more and more of our data – photos, letters, memories – as well as actual things – music and books – exist in digital rather than analogue form. And as more of our lives are logged and lodged virtually, chances are our relatives might not be able to access it.

“Don’t mind me, just writing down all my passwords for when I die”.
Shutterstock

A documentary about this precise issue aired recently on BBC Radio 4. My Digital Legacy was part of the We Need to Talk about Death series and featured terminally ill patients with an extensive digital footprint who rely on the internet – especially on social media – to connect to the world around them. The programme also heard from bereaved relatives who experienced difficulties in accessing data, including Facebook profiles, of loved ones after their death.

The death manager

My recent short story How To Curate a Life, published by Storgy Books in the anthology Exit Earth, deals with precisely this issue. Set in the not too distant future, the parents of a young woman killed suddenly in an accident try to commission Jesse – a “digital death manager” – not to curate her life but to erase it: to gain access to her files then destroy them.

In this fictional world where everyone is required to dictate the terms of their digital estate, it is illegal for Jesse to tamper with the girl’s online content. And yet, the financial reward would mean freedom from his desk bound job forever.

The concept of decluttering before you die is apparently part of Swedish culture.
Shutterstock

The story grew from an idea I found online about careers that will be ubiquitous in the future. Digital death management, it seems, is definitely set to become “A Thing”. And just as we now commission solicitors or will writers to oversee our material estate – there will come a time when people will also hire someone to clean up their digital footprint

In our already busy lives, does tending to our online existence give us one more thing to do? Perhaps so. But it’s about taking responsibility for our own stuff. If we don’t make the decisions about what to keep or discard – whether actual or online – then ultimately others will need to. And if we don’t leave clear directions about where to find our digital content, it makes things tougher for everyone.

As Magnusson writes, death cleaning is “a permanent form of organisation that makes everyday life run smoothly”. What better legacy to leave behind than to ease the bereavement process for the ones we love?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

DMs From Beyond the Grave Are Changing How We Grieve

DMs From Beyond the Grave Are Changing How We Grieve

“When you experience those feelings and memories, it’s a little bit like losing someone all over again.”

This October, when NaKina Talbert glanced out the window of her temporary home in Guatemala and saw a volcano erupting less than 100 miles away, her first instinct was to snap a photo. “It’s pretty far away, but it booms like a cannon!” she tagged the image, with an arrow pointing to the volcano.

Talbert, a 58-year-old painter and former project manager from Dallas, Texas, then logged into her account on SafeBeyond, a digital legacy platform. Here she uploaded the image to her “vault,” a cache of photos, videos, audio messages, and letters she plans to have sent in installments to various family members after her death. There is the message for when her granddaughter (now 14) turns 21, the video for the first Christmas Talbert’s son (now 37) will spend without her, letters to her future great grandchildren (should there be any), and a slew of recordings from the bucket-list trips she has taken over the last year.

Talbert’s visit to Guatemala is her seventh such trip, though she doesn’t know how many more she will be able to make. According to her doctors, she wasn’t even supposed to live this long.

In 2014, Talbert was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, a rare and fast-acting neurodegenerative disease with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. She soon began making preparations. She knew she wanted to leave her children and grandchildren recordings of her voice—when Talbert’s father died nearly 40 years ago, that was the thing she forgot first. “I can still see his face as clearly as if it were yesterday,” she told me. “But I can’t quite grasp his voice anymore.”

She found SafeBeyond about a year after being diagnosed. It’s one of a growing number of services, including DeadSocial and GoneNotGone, that allow people to posthumously send video, audio, and text-based messages to their loved ones at planned times. Users of these services could presumably schedule annual birthday videos to be sent to family members from beyond the grave, or write notes, as Talbert has, to be dispatched to future descendants they will never meet.

Most of these services require payment through a subscription plan or a one-time storage purchase. DeadSocial, one of the more prominent digital legacy companies, currently boasts over 12,000 users, according to its founder. It is unclear, however, exactly how many people have signed up across the industry.

Talbert, for her part, is also leveraging SafeBeyond to help plan her funeral, for which she has many requirements. One is that her whole family wear tie-dye, she explained, because she loves the idea that someone will drive by, see a bunch of people crying, and “think they all just got fired from Joe’s Crab Shack.” Her main hope, though, is that SafeBeyond will help her family through their grief once she’s passed away. She has messages planned to be sent throughout their initial year of mourning, including one her son will receive on his first day without her. To Talbert, these messages are a way to reach out and support her kin from the afterlife.

But if we can now regularly receive direct digital messages from deceased loved ones, how is that changing the way we mourn their passing?

Image: NaKina Talbert

It’s a newer wrinkle in a much older question—how is technology shaping our relationship with death?—and an emerging field of scholars have already devoted themselves to studying it. Preliminary research suggests consistent posthumous communication in fact can have a positive influence on recipients coming to terms with loss.

Debra Bassett, a doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick who researches the impacts of death in the digital world, believes that posthumous messages can help their recipients return to a place of grief when they need it most. In general, “most people that I have researched are finding these things a comfort,” Bassett said.

Advertisement

Still, the answer might vary depending on circumstance. In “Shadows of the Dead: Social Media and Our Changing Relationship with the Departed,” a study Bassett published earlier this year, she interviewed individuals who have revisited digital communications from deceased loved ones. She found that while re-reading emails or text messages has indeed helped many people grieve, listening to audio recordings is more complicated. A number of participants, according to the study, felt that “they need to already be having a ‘bad day’ to listen to voice recordings, and that this is done only occasionally and after much consideration.”

And for many people, no matter the mode of communication, receiving a posthumous messages might feel like an ambush.

Lori Earl, whose daughter Esther died of cancer at the age of 16, was shocked when she received an email from Esther around three months after her death. Earl was at a meeting when she received a text from her husband: Do not open your emails until after your meeting, it read. She soon understood why.

A few years earlier, it turned out, Esther had written a note addressed to her older self. “Future me,” it began, “I hope you’re doing better than present me.” Her parents hadn’t known about the letter, which had been sent via the service FutureMe, until it unexpectedly hit their inbox.

it’s current Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts. B)

— Esther (@crazycrayon) February 18, 2011

Soon after, a tweet appeared on Esther’s timeline: “it’s current [sic] Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts. B).” The tweet went live in February 2011, over six months after Esther died. No one is sure what service was used to post the message.

At first, her mother was jarred. Reading communications from her late daughter reignited her grief. “When you experience those feelings and memories, it’s a little bit like losing someone all over again,” Earl said.

Advertisement

The tweet still evokes raw feelings. But eventually the Earls came to hold Esther’s posthumous letter as a source of comfort. Reading it felt like conversing with their daughter, something they dearly missed. Even now, Earl said she finds herself going back to it. “We do read from it often, because it’s such an insight into who [Esther] was and what she hoped,” she said.

Earl, who has since memorialized Esther’s life in the bestselling book This Star Won’t Go Out, compares confronting posthumous digital messages to wiggling a loose tooth: It hurts every time, “and yet you can’t leave it alone.” Feeling pain, to her, is better than feeling nothing. And “while a letter may be painful,” Earl added, “it will always in some way be healing.”

“It’ll be the last new thing from him, which will be so, so hard. But at least I get a new thing, so many years after the fact.”

Peter Barrett, founder of GoneNotGone, says he wants to avoid posthumous communications catching recipients by surprise. Message recipients have to consent to see messages left for them through the service, Barrett noted. They receive an email that provides a GoneNotGone login, and can disable the service at any time if it makes them uncomfortable.

Barrett genuinely believes that companies like his will help people come to terms with loss. “If you know you are going to hear from someone again and again on your birthday, it becomes something to look forward to,” he said. “The person remains in your life despite not having a physical presence.”

Advertisement

Emma Rose, a 19-year-old college sophomore, would agree. When she was 12, Rose’s uncle died after a three-year battle with brain cancer. Today, she remembers him as a Cookie Monster tattoo connoisseur, a fan of Say Yes to the Dress who spoiled his nieces with vacations to Disney World.

An infant Rose and her uncle. Image: Emma Rose

Prior to his passing, Rose said, he wrote physical letters to be sent to her and her sister at various stages in their lives—one immediately following his death, another at his memorial service a month later, and a third to be opened on her and her sister’s respective wedding days. Rose has yet to read the third.

“With cancer, there’s always an element of mourning where you feel as if something’s been stolen from you,” she told me. “I’m not sure a single holiday or birthday has gone by where I haven’t had a moment of, ‘He should be here.’ Knowing that on my wedding day I won’t have to feel like that,” she added, “that a part of him will actually be there, is amazing.”

In fact, Rose draws so much comfort from the specter of this final letter from her uncle that it actually makes her nervous. “It’ll be the last new thing from him, which will be so, so hard,” she said. “But at least I get a new thing, so many years after the fact. Not a lot of people do.”

In the end, it seems, her uncle got his wish. Rose thinks his great fear was that she and her sister would forget him, since they were young when he died. He didn’t want to slip out of their lives; his analog letters were an effort to remain close to them. “In a way it’s kinda like he cheated death,” Rose said. “Like, ‘lol cancer you thought you were gonna prevent me from talking to my nieces on their wedding days? NICE TRY!’”

Advertisement

Her uncle might not have used an online legacy platform to schedule his messages—instead, Rose’s aunt is delivering his letters. But Rose’s experience is nonetheless analogous to that which might soon be shared by loved ones of those who turned to the likes of GoneNotGone, DeadSocial, and SafeBeyond to effectively curate their digital afterlives.

As for Talbert, she hopes to achieve what Rose’s uncle has. She wants her potential great grandchildren to know that their “crazy great grandmother” once sat in a hammock and watched a volcano erupt from her window. “I think people are most interested in things like that,” she said. “Just cool stories.”

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.

Images

Why you should have a digital will

The eternity option: preparing for your digital afterlife

The eternity option: preparing for your digital afterlife

What sort of digital footprint do we leave when we die? It is an issue that is very much of our age and – depending on your viewpoint – can be either a problem or an opportunity.

It’s an interesting place, the digital afterlife. We now have the first generation, at the formative end, whose entire existence has been in the digital era. At the other end of life’s great journey we also have a first generation that is sufficiently digitally savvy to leave more of their life’s clutter on the PC rather than in the attic.

What if that PC is lost, password protected, one of many, or appallingly (or very individually) organised? And, of course, what about all the digital information that is not on that PC but floating around in the cloud, or in other people’s data sets? What if you want to leave your own glowing profile after your death, or conversely are concerned about some of those less flattering Twitter comments?

Not surprisingly in this day and age, there is increasing attention being paid to these issues with an industry developing around them, often with the creativity coming from app developers. E&T asked some of the new breed of experts and innovators to comment on the main topics around how to deal with your digital legacy.

The most obvious digital legacy is the one you leave on social media. Most platforms have a simple means of removing a social media profile within the account settings. Only a few might consider this a priority in an end-of-life scenario and, anyway, delete doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gone.

Evan Carroll, speaker and author of ‘The Digital Beyond’, says: “Rarely does deleting the account actually delete all of the data. For instance, Facebook retains the right to hold onto the data in case you want to reactivate your account. Facebook also retains any messages you’ve sent to others as it would be odd for those items to be removed from someone else’s account. Theoretically, if someone had your username and password, they could reactivate your account. I would imagine that the information would be released under a court order as well.”

Editing of social media to portray a life of fun and frolics is not just for dealing with profiles of the deceased. “People do this all of the time,” says Carroll. “I would argue that we’re constantly ‘adjusting’ the image of ourselves we project online to suit our own self-image, even if this image isn’t entirely objective.”

Taking control of a deceased relative’s digital profile is generally straightforward but there may be additional security questions to contend with. Without the password it becomes more difficult. “It depends upon the policy of the site,” claims Carroll. “For instance, Facebook will allow a family member to request deletion or anyone can request memorialisation. Generally, one will not be able to access an account without the password, as most sites have policies against granting access to heirs.”

Keeping a site active as a memorial can be a source of comfort, but also is open to abuse. In general Carroll thinks they are worth keeping: “People often come together on these sites as a source of communal bereavement. In most cases, save extreme circumstances, the comments are mostly positive.”

What of all the historical posts and conversations that may be on the same site – are they worth preserving or do they potentially distort the true memory of the individual? Carroll believes it is down to that person: “This is the big privacy question surrounding social media after death. In the physical world, we were forced to make decisions to discard things. In the digital world, we can allow it to pile up. I understand both sides of this question and believe the real solution is for people to take ownership of their own digital footprint and actively decide what should be kept and what should be discarded.”

Recognising the need for services to deal with digital lives and deaths, many start-ups have developed some innovative tools. America, unsurprisingly, is the place to find the biggest variety of such apps but there are plenty springing up in the UK as well. One of these, Lexikin, has released its version of the ‘digital vault’.

The digital vault is a place to store all the essential information that needs to be passed on, typically to the next of kin. Simon Stewart of Lexikin describes the information that should be collected: “Some ‘vaults’ simply store memories and passwords. We encourage clients to record assets, wishes, memories and legacies in case of fire, theft or death, so it’s actually useful when you’re alive as a complete asset management tool.”

Trying to create such a resource oneself is clearly possible, but requires very careful management of passwords, diligent data storing and a robust plan for providing access to the information on death.

Maybe, as Stewart suggests, having a structured vault would change the way people treat their data and automatic tagging of household bills or photos would perhaps store them in the appropriate place. Stewart says: “I agree with the notion that ‘business will never move as slowly in the future as it does today’, as tech is changing our lives so dramatically. Yes, digital storage is becoming more mainstream and different age groups are using Lexikin for different purposes.”

The service has safety checks in place to verify that once the company has been alerted to someone’s death by a next of kin, it contacts the executor, confirms the death and ID using an international ID fraud check company, and can then proceed according to instructions.

There are a lot of start-ups in this arena, and there are no historical references to judge how permanent these companies are. So what should people consider when choosing? “Look for companies with regulated partnerships, especially with large firms to guarantee longevity,” says Stewart. “Larger companies have to do significant due diligence on small company partnerships to protect their brand.”

What if anything happens to Lexikin? Is the vault lost? Stewart responds: “If our HQ is nuked, the codebase is backed up and our legal and insurance partners would get the keys to ensure continuity. Both are regulated firms, to ensure client security and privacy.”

Cyberspace possessions should not be sneezed at either. US research claims the average American has more than $55,000 of digital assets and this has grown by over 10 per cent per annum in recent years. But who owns these assets after death? Stewart says: “US law is different to British law. If I bequeath a digital asset to my next of kin, in UK law it belongs to them. In US law the company might have ownership rights.”

If in doubt, the best course of action is simply to write suggesting that your satisfaction with their response will be shared on social media – such companies hate to be embarrassed in this way.

Sometimes, people have pastimes that they are not particularly proud of and would not want to be associated with after their death, including unpopular views about race, politics, sexuality and so on. So how do you protect your data?

Evan Carroll of ‘The Digital Beyond, says: “There’s no guaranteed way to prevent your data from being seen by others in the future. You can certainly make it harder by using encryption on your devices and not sharing your password. If this is a concern for someone, I would suggest taking care to delete their history on a regular basis and consider using unique passwords for every device/account.

“It’s quite easy to reset a password on Mac and PC platforms,” Carroll continues. “If the drive is encrypted, however, resetting the password will also prevent access to the encrypted files.”

Emails are difficult to protect, because they’re often hosted on a server and the passwords can be easy to discover or reset. What’s more, once an email has been sent the recipient has a right to keep it. Carroll says: “The best way to protect emails is to use a service like Yahoo, where it prevents access by heirs or Gmail where you can choose what happens to your account using its Inactive Account Manager.”

Equally, messages sent through social media remain with the recipient until deleted by them, but retrospective post removal is easy and can prevent a build-up of unflattering comments.

Could the ‘keyboard warriors’ who troll internet forums be posthumously revealed and associated with distasteful comments? “This is a possibility,” says Carroll, “but a more remote one if they’ve remained careful creating obscure email addresses and not attaching them to their exact identity.”

How about those involved in organisations or activities that may or may not be legal, but could definitely be deemed distasteful? Carroll advises: “My best suggestion would be to handle these types of activities in a separate account from your professional or personal business. However, the best way to keep something away from the digital world is to not share it in the first place.”

As stated above, a Facebook page can usefully remain open after death as a moment in time, a memorial page for friends and family to share their grief, support and thoughts, and even as an active page going forward. That person’s death may have, for example, resulted in ongoing charitable work, a continuation of that person’s projects or hobbies, or as a way of uniting groups and maintaining contact.

However, new services are emerging that allow the deceased to still play a part in online society. One of these is GoneNotGone, which will send posthumous messages to loved ones on birthdays, anniversaries or other special days.

Peter Barrett of GoneNotGone explains the purpose of such a service and what sort of information should be considered. “This is an important question and more important is what not to think about. This is not a service for bank account information, online login information etc – this should be handled by legal professionals with your will. The aim of the site is to bring relief and hopefully fun.

“We want messages about love, uplifting stories, stories of what life was like at the same age by grandparents. One example talks about where someone’s name came from. For religious people, scriptures are good too.”

Even Barrett concedes that people’s first reaction is often that the idea is creepy, one person described it as ‘digital haunting’, but the reaction from those who have lost someone close is typically better than from those who have not. He says: “One person described how he had an answerphone message from his father which he kept and often played back until it was accidentally wiped and he was most upset to lose it. A few people have also said, ‘I wish my mum (for example) had signed up when I told her about this, now it is too late’.

“I think as we get some success stories and people can see the value it will become more commonplace. However, we are dealing with death and people typically put off anything associated with death, such as their wills. People have to face their mortality for a moment to sign up. This is sad, as the people who can benefit the most are those who lose a parent suddenly, possibly due to a road accident. With our service they could still be getting birthday messages and jokes from their parents; it is almost like a digital insurance.”

Going a step further it will soon be possible to actively participate in the digital world long after your participation in the real world has ended. Although still in its beta stage, ETER9 claims to be the network that never sleeps – and nor do its members, if so desired.

It relies on an artificial intelligence (AI) system that continuously learns from its users. The element, called ‘Counterpart’, will keep virtually interacting with other users when the user is offline. This activity will be all the more efficient the more information the system has about the user – through normal users’ interactions. ETER9’s Henrique Jorge says: “If a user decides to keep his counterpart active for eternity, he/she will keep the virtual extension of him/herself alive forever.”

Counterparts continuously learns with users’ interactions, absorbing users’ behaviours, personalities and actions. If you are habitually happy, then your Counterpart will be also. If your social media posts are more on the grumpy side, then your Counterpart will reflect that, and no one can alter that other than the user. “Friends and family are able to tweak your real personality,” claims Jorge, “and this can reflect the behaviour of your virtual self, since it learns from your real self. This is the only way others can actually change your personality.”

It is an interesting example of technologies merging, AI with social media, and Jorge believes it has huge potential as people log on to their network to find out not just what their friends have been saying, but also what their own Counterpart has been up to while the real person is offline. However, people have fought and died for the rights of the individual and freedom of thought, are they really going to be willing to be defined for eternity by something they have no control over?

“People won’t be defined for eternity by Counterparts,” says Jorge. “Counterparts will be defined for eternity by people! While users are present, they have total control of their Counterpart. They can interact within the network as they wish. And if they want to be ‘digitally immortal’, their Counterpart will continue interacting and posting according to their patterns.

“Everybody will notice that the owner of the Counterpart is not there, and the Counterpart’s behaviour will be different – the Counterpart is an extension of the human, not THE human. On ETER9, you decide the present/future of your account: you can shut down your Counterpart’s functionality while you are offline (and physically alive), you settle its level of autonomy and it’s up to you turn on/off the ‘Eternity’ option.”

So, there is an option at the click of a button – eternity on or off?

The Digital Afterlife Is a Mess

The Digital Afterlife Is a Mess

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State UniversityNew America, and Slate. On Dec. 6, Future Tense will hold a happy hour event in Washington about planning your digital afterlife. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Imagine that your beloved brother had just been killed in a car accident, leaving behind not just a grieving (and angry) family, but also dozens of internet accounts, ranging from his Facebook page to his Gmail accounts to his business records. You’ve gone to court, and you’ve received legal authority to clean up your brother’s estate. What rights does that give you to manage his online accounts?

There is, alas, no one right answer. What you can do depends on what actions your brother took before his death, what the online accounts themselves permit, and the laws of the state where your brother lived.

In the past, after a person became incapacitated or died, the legally recognized fiduciary (someone given the power to act on behalf of another) would go to the home of the person who had died and look for paper records of bank accounts, stock holdings, bills to be paid, and business transactions. During that process, they would find old love letters, dirty laundry, and anything else left behind. Laws are clear that this fiduciary has management rights and must act in the best interests of the person who has died.

Today’s world is different. Many of us have chosen to go paperless, so all of our financial statements are delivered electronically; we even file digital tax returns. Our love letters may no longer be written in ink on paper, our reading and listening and viewing interests no longer documented by hardcover books and magazines, record albums, and VCR tapes, and our photos no longer stored in boxes under out beds. In 2013, McAfee released a survey that suggested that on average, we value our digital assets—what we have created, communicated, sent, received, or stored through electronic means—at about $35,000. These assets range from a potentially lucrative domain name to all of those photos we store in the cloud. (In the McAfee survey, the average respondent said that digital “personal memories” were worth about $17,000.)

Collecting all of those records today often begins with accessing the person’s computer, rather than physical file cabinets. You might think then, that your first step should involve accessing your brother’s computer.

But federal and state laws protect against unauthorized access to computers and internet accounts, and internet service providers may prohibit sharing access to data with anyone else through their terms of service agreements, or TOSAs. To protect our privacy on the web, Congress enacted the Stored Communications Act in 1986 (when Mark Zuckerberg was 2 years old) as part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The law prohibits certain providers of public communications services from disclosing the “contents” of our electronic communications without legal authorization, such as a search warrant—or your brother’s permission. (“Contents” includes what is contained in our email messages, although it doesn’t include the user’s name or address, or the date and time the message was sent.) So, even if you have access to your brother’s username and password, it may be a crime to use them. And then there are those TOSAs, the conditions you click through (and most people don’t read) in order to sign up for an internet account. And the TOSAs for many sites warn you against revealing your password. According to Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, you agree that “You will not share your password.” OK, you probably won’t be prosecuted if you use your dead brother’s password to get into his Facebook account—but it is definitely not a risk worth taking.

Some sites have added options to let us plan for management of our accounts when we are no longer able to do so, and maybe your brother took advantage of these services. Facebook now allows you to designate a “Legacy Contact.” Here’s the official explanation:

Once someone lets us know that a person has passed away, we will memorialize the account and the legacy contact will be able to:

– Write a post to display at the top of the memorialized Timeline (for example, to announce a memorial service or share a special message)

– Respond to new friend requests from family members and friends who were not yet connected on Facebook

Similarly, Google offers an Inactive Account Manager. Google users can provide information about a trusted contact who will have access to various Google accounts once the primary user has been inactive for a set period of time. The Google user can specify the period of inactivity before notification is sent and can also indicate to which accounts the trusted contact will have access. Or, if you’d rather not share those accounts, then you can ask Google to delete your account after you go a set amount of time without logging in.

But what if your brother hasn’t designated a Legacy Contact or an Inactive Account Manager? And what about all of those other internet accounts?

Enter the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, Revised, which was first proposed in 2015. It is now in effect in more than two-thirds of the states, and it attempts to solve problems with access. RUFADAA allows a fiduciary to manage much of a decedent’s digital property, giving access to many things other than the content of electronic communications (unless this access has been limited by the user or by a court order) and even permitting access to content in certain limited situations.

RUFADAA sets out a four-tiered system of priorities:

  1. If the internet company provides its own digital tool that is distinct from the general terms of service and through which the account holder has named another person to have access to the user’s digital assets or to direct that the company delete the user’s digital assets (think of Facebook’s Legacy Contact option), then these online instructions control the fiduciary’s access.
  2. If the internet company didn’t provide this option, or if the account holder didn’t use the tool, then the person can use a will, trust, or another writing to set out what should happen to the digital assets.
  3. If the user has not provided any direction, either online or through estate planning, then the TOSA for the account controls just what the fiduciary can access.
  4. However, many of these agreements don’t say what happens when the user dies. If there’s nothing else, then RUFADAA can allow the fiduciary access to digital material other than the content of certain electronic communications. So you would be able to go into your brother’s account to find email addresses, for instance, or to look for the date and time that he sent an important email before he died. But you couldn’t look at what the email itself said (or even the subject line, technically).

The website Everplans offers some helpful advice on how to manage email accounts. But hopefully learning about these problems will make you want to take control of this issue before you are too ill (or too dead) to use your computer. Here are a few concrete steps for you to consider.

First, take stock of your own online universe. Make sure you have an inventory of your digital assets, including all accounts and passwords. And be careful about revealing that information to anyone else not just because you are concerned about your privacy and hacking, but also because it might be illegal for someone else to use your password, even with your consent, if the site’s terms of service prevent password sharing. Luckily, online services can help you keep track.

Second, take advantage of the online management tools currently available and sign up for them. If you haven’t yet activated Google’s Inactive Account Manager or set up your Facebook Legacy Contact, it’s time to do so.

Third, consider drafting some estate planning documents to cover your digital assets. Think about whom you would want to serve as a fiduciary who would get access to your online accounts, and think about how much access you want to give that person. There are samples online, including those from the Digital Beyond and Everplans.

It may be a little tedious and a little macabre—no one likes to think about death. And, of course, this is not legal advice. But you’ll be doing your family and friends an enormous favor if you do a little digital estate planning now.

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help.

If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus