What happens to our online identities when we die?

What happens to our online identities when we die?

What happens to our online identities when we die?

Click here to view original web page at What happens to our online identities when we die?

Hayley Atwell in the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back.

Esther Earl never meant to tweet after she died. On 25 August 2010, the 16-year-old internet vlogger died after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. In her early teens, Esther had gained a loyal following online, where she posted about her love of Harry Potter, and her illness. Then, on 18 February 2011 – six months after her death – Esther posted a message on her Twitter account, @crazycrayon.

“It’s currently Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts,” she wrote, adding an emoji of a smiling face in sunglasses. Her mother, Lori Earl from Massachusetts, tells me Esther’s online friends were “freaked out” by the tweet.

“I’d say they found her tweet jarring because it was unexpected,” she says. Earl doesn’t know which service her daughter used to schedule the tweet a year in advance, but believes it was intended for herself, not for loved ones after her death. “She hoped she would receive her own messages … [it showed] her hopes and longings to still be living, to hold on to life.”

Although Esther did not intend her tweet to be a posthumous message for her family, a host of services now encourage people to plan their online afterlives. Want to post on social media and communicate with your friends after death? There are lots of apps for that! Replika and Eternime are artificially intelligent chatbots that can imitate your speech for loved ones after you die; GoneNotGone enables you to send emails from the grave; and DeadSocial’s “goodbye tool” allows you to “tell your friends and family that you have died”. In season two, episode one of Black Mirror, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence – what was once the subject of a dystopian 44-minute fantasy is nearing reality.

Esther Earl at home in 2010 … before she died, she arranged for emails to be sent to her imagined future self.
Esther Earl at home in 2010 … before she died, she arranged for emails to be sent to her imagined future self. Photograph: Boston Globe via Getty Images

But although Charlie Brooker portrayed the digital afterlife as something twisted, in reality online legacies can be comforting for the bereaved. Esther Earl used a service called FutureMe to send emails to herself, stating that her parents should read them if she died. Three months after Esther’s death, her mother received one of these emails. “They were seismically powerful,” she says. “That letter made us weep, but also brought us great comfort – I think because of its intentionality, the fact that she was thinking about her future, the clarity with which she accepted who she was and who she hoped to become.”

Because of the power of Esther’s messages, Earl knows that if she were dying, she would also schedule emails for her husband and children. “I think I would be very clear about how many messages I had written and when to expect them,” she adds, noting they could cause anxiety for relatives and friends otherwise.

Yet while the terminally ill ponder their digital legacies, the majority of us do not. In November 2018, a YouGov survey found that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to remain online after they die, yet it is estimated that by 2100, there could be 4.9bn dead users on Facebook alone. Planning your digital death is not really about scheduling status updates for loved ones or building an AI avatar. In practice, it is a series of unglamorous decisions about deleting your Facebook, Twitter and Netflix accounts; protecting your email against hackers; bestowing your music library to your friends; allowing your family to download photos from your cloud; and ensuring that your online secrets remain hidden in their digital alcoves.

In Be Right Back, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence.
In Be Right Back, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence. Photograph: Channel 4

“We should think really carefully about anything we’re entrusting or storing on any digital platform,” says Dr Elaine Kasket, a psychologist and author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. “If our digital stuff were like our material stuff, we would all look like extreme hoarders.” Kasket says it is naive to assume that our online lives die with us. In practice, your hoard of digital data can cause endless complications for loved ones, particularly when they don’t have access to your passwords.

“I cursed my father every step of the way,” says Richard, a 34-year-old engineer from Ontario who was made executor of his father’s estate four years ago. Although Richard’s father left him a list of passwords, not one remained valid by the time of his death. Richard couldn’t access his father’s online government accounts, his email (to inform his contacts about the funeral), or even log on to his computer. For privacy reasons, Microsoft refused to help Richard access his father’s computer. “Because of that experience I will never call Microsoft again,” he says.

Our devices capture so much stuff, we don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here

Compare this with the experience of Jan-Ole Lincke, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical worker from Hamburg whose father left up-to-date passwords behind on a sheet of paper when he died two years ago. “Getting access was thankfully very easy,” says Lincke, who was able to download pictures from his father’s Google profile, shut down his email to prevent hacking, and delete credit card details from his Amazon account. “It definitely made me think about my own [digital legacy],” says Lincke, who has now written his passwords down.

Yet despite growing awareness about the data we leave behind, very few of us are doing anything about it. In 2013, a Brighton-based company called Cirrus Legacy made headlines after it began allowing people to securely leave behind passwords for a nominated loved one. Yet the Cirrus website is now defunct, and the Guardian was unable to reach its founder for comment. Clarkson Wright & Jakes Solicitors, a Kent-based law firm that offered the Cirrus service to its clients, says the option was never popular.

“We’ve been aware for quite a period now that the big issue for the next generation is digital footprints,” says Jeremy Wilson, head of the wills and estates team at CWJ. “Cirrus made sense and ticked a lot of boxes but, to be honest, not one client has taken us up on it.”

Wilson also notes that people don’t know about the laws surrounding digital assets such as the music, movies and games they have downloaded. While many of us assume we own our iTunes library or collection of PlayStation games, in fact, most digital downloads are only licensed to us, and this licence ends when we die.

What we want to do and what the law allows us to do with our digital legacy can therefore be very different things. Yet at present it is not the law that dominates our decisions about digital death. “Regulation is always really slow to keep up with technology,” says Kasket. “That means that platforms and corporations like Facebook end up writing the rules.”

Andrew Scott stars in the new Black Mirror episode Smithereens, which explores our digital dependency.
Andrew Scott stars in the new Black Mirror episode Smithereens, which explores our digital dependency. Photograph: Netflix / Black Mirror

In 2012, a 15-year-old German girl died after being hit by a subway train in Berlin. Although the girl had given her parents her online passwords, they were unable to access her Facebook account because it had been “memorialised” by the social network. Since October 2009, Facebook has allowed profiles to be transformed into “memorial pages” that exist in perpetuity. No one can then log into the account or update it, and it remains frozen as a place for loved ones to share their grief.

The girl’s parents sued Facebook for access to her account – they hoped to use it to determine whether her death was suicide. They originally lost the case, although a German court later granted the parents permission to get into her account, six years after her death.

“I find it concerning that any big tech company that hasn’t really shown itself to be the most honest, transparent or ethical organisation is writing the rulebook for how we should grieve, and making moral judgments about who should or shouldn’t have access to sensitive personal data,” says Kasket. The author is concerned with how Facebook uses the data of the dead for profit, arguing that living users keep their Facebook accounts because they don’t want to be “locked out of the cemetery” and lose access to relatives’ memorialised pages. As a psychologist, she is also concerned that Facebook is dictating our grief.

“Facebook created memorial profiles to prevent what they called ‘pain points’, like getting birthday reminders for a deceased person,” she says. “But one of the mothers I spoke to for my book was upset when her daughter’s profile was memorialised and she stopped getting these reminders. She was like, ‘This is my daughter, I gave birth to her, it’s still her birthday’.”

While Facebook users now have the option to appoint a “legacy contact” who can manage or delete their profile after death, Kasket is concerned that there are very few personalisation options when it comes to things like birthday reminders, or whether strangers can post on your wall. “The individuality and the idiosyncrasy of grief will flummox Facebook every time in its attempts to find a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.

Pain points … should we allow loved ones to curate our legacy, or create ‘memorial pages’?
Pain points … should we allow loved ones to curate our legacy, or create ‘memorial pages’? Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Matthew Helm, a 27-year-old technical analyst from Minnesota, says his mother’s Facebook profile compounded his grief after she died four years ago. “The first year was the most difficult,” says Helm, who felt some relatives posted about their grief on his mother’s wall in order to get attention. “In the beginning I definitely wished I could just wipe it all.” Helm hoped to delete the profile but was unable to access his mother’s account. He did not ask the tech giant to delete the profile because he didn’t want to give it his mother’s death certificate.

Conversely, Stephanie Nimmo, a 50-year-old writer from Wimbledon, embraced the chance to become her husband’s legacy contact after he died of bowel cancer in December 2015. “My husband and I shared a lot of information on Facebook. It almost became a bit of an online diary,” she says. “I didn’t want to lose that.” She is pleased people continue to post on her husband’s wall, and enjoys tagging him in posts about their children’s achievements. “I’m not being maudlin or creating a shrine, just acknowledging that their dad lived and he played a role in their lives,” she explains.

Nimmo is now passionate about encouraging people to plan their digital legacies. Her husband also left her passwords for his Reddit, Twitter, Google and online banking accounts. He also deleted Facebook messages he didn’t want his wife to see. “Even in a marriage there are certain things you wouldn’t want your other half to see because it’s private,” says Nimmo. “It worries me a little that if something happened to me, there are things I wouldn’t want my kids to see.”

When it comes to the choice between allowing relatives access to your accounts or letting a social media corporation use your data indefinitely after your death, privacy is a fundamental issue. Although the former makes us sweat, the latter is arguably more dystopian. Dr Edinja Harbinja is a law lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, who argues that we should all legally be entitled to postmortem privacy.

If we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us

“The deceased should have the right to control what happens to their personal data and online identities when they die,” she says, explaining that the Data Protection Act 2018 defines “personal data” as relating only to living people. Harbinja says this is problematic because rules such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation don’t apply to the dead, and because there are no provisions that allow us to pass on our online data in wills. “There can be many issues because we don’t know what would happen if someone is a legacy contact on Facebook, but the next of kin want access.” For example, if you decide you want your friend to delete your Facebook pictures after you die, your husband could legally challenge this. “There could be potential court cases.”

Kasket says people “don’t realise how much preparation they need to do in order to make plans that are actually able to be carried out”. It is clear that if we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us. “What one person craves is what another person is horrified about,” says Kasket.

How close are we to a Black Mirror-style digital afterlife?

Read more

Esther Earl continued to tweet for another year after her death. Automated posts from the music website Last.fm updated her followers about the music she enjoyed. There is no way to predict the problems we will leave online when we die; Lori Earl would never have thought of revoking Last.fm’s permissions to post on her daughter’s page before she died. “We would have turned off the posts if we had been able to,” she says.

Kasket says “the fundamental message” is to think about how much you store digitally. “Our devices, without us even having to try, capture so much stuff,” she says. “We don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here any more.”

• Black Mirror season 5 launches on Netflix on 5 June.


Business Owners Can Learn How to Leave a Lasting Digital Legacy

Business Owners Can Learn How to Leave a Lasting Digital Legacy

Business Owners Can Learn How to Leave a Lasting Digital Legacy

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Business Owners Can Learn How to Leave a Lasting Digital Legacy

Businesses can learn how to leave a digital legacy to be proud of during a networking event at Basepoint Business Centre on Friday, May 17.

Matt Lloyd, from marketing planning and design services Lloyd & Co, will present Leaving Your Digital Legacy as part of Pounds for Primrose week.

The session will give people the chance to consider what kind of digital legacy they will leave behind and what it says about them and their business.

Matt Lloyd said: “In November 2018, a survey revealed that 26 per cent of people would like the content of their social media accounts to pass to their loved ones once they have died.

“Business owners work so hard to build their reputation, have their own style, their own voice and way of working which customers get used to.

“This is all part of the brand experience. People buy from people.

“So, after all the hard work of building a brand, it’s hardly surprising that more people are thinking about what happens to their social media accounts when they die.

“I’ll be talking about brand experience and how that influences the buying process. Building the brand and eventually leaving a digital legacy.”

Pounds for Primrose week starts on Monday, May 13 with people encouraged to hold fundraising events at schools or workplaces or simply donate £1 to the hospice.

Amy Flemming, corporate fundraiser at Primrose Hospice, said: “Leaving Your Digital Legacy will be an interesting session for anyone who uses social media for their business.

“We all create online personas and leave behind a digital footprint.

“Matt’s workshop will give businesses an insight into how to create a digital legacy to be proud of.

“It will run as part of Pounds for Primrose week where we will be asking people to raise money for the hospice in any way they can.

“Matt’s networking event is the perfect way for businesses to get involved and we hope that many of Worcestershire’s thriving business community will sign up.

“Every donation helps Primrose deliver care and support to people with life limiting conditions and their families in north east Worcestershire.

“To keep these services free for people to use, we must make sure we raise over £1.7million annually.”

The event has been kindly supported by Basepoint Business Centre in Bromsgrove.

Tickets are a minimum £15 donation and include hot drinks and refreshments.

To book your place or to find out more about Pounds for Primrose, email amyf@primrosehospice.org.

By 2070, Facebook could have more dead than living users

By 2070, Facebook could have more dead than living users

By 2070, Facebook could have more dead than living users

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Dead may outnumber living on Facebook by 2070

Over the next 50 years, the number of dead user profiles on Facebook could be more than those of the living, a new study from Oxford University has revealed.

This, as the researchers posit, could leave a humongous chunk of data archive on Facebook, a digital legacy which should be preserved for future generations and historians.

Here’s everything they said.

2.27 billion use Facebook, 1.4 billion to die before 2100

2.27 billion use Facebook, 1.4 billion to die before 2100

Facebook currently has some 2.27 billion users, and researchers from Oxford Internet Institute (OII) predicted that some 1.4 billion would die before 2100.

This, combined with Facebook’s rate of growth, implies that the dead profiles on the service would outnumber the living by 2070.

And, it could continue to grow up to a whopping 4.9 billion by the end of this century, Telegraph reported.

How these predictions were made

The researchers got these figures after assuming different scenarios on the basis of UN’s data for mortalities predicted for every age group in every country as well as information from Facebook’s audience insight feature.

This will trigger the need of data preservation

As these ‘dead’ profiles won’t be of any use to Facebook because they won’t generate ad revenues, the researchers have emphasized on the importance of preserving their data.

They said that the data archive of these dead profiles is like a heritage of the 21st Century, which would be useful for future generations and historians.

Here’s what study lead Carl Ohman said about these figures

“These statistics give rise to new and difficult questions around who has the right to all this data, how should it be managed in the best interests of the families and friends of the deceased and its use by future historians to understand the past.”

Saving nearly 5 billion profiles won’t be easy

Saving nearly 5 billion profiles won't be easy

If the estimates calculated by the researchers are true, Facebook will have as many as 5 billion dead user profiles to deal with.

This would be too much to be managed by a single company, which is why the team is calling the social network to partner with archivists, archaeologists, historians, and others to device a way to preserve accumulated data for future generations.

How this data chunk could help future generations

The data, if preserved, will have historical value, giving people an opportunity to learn about previous generations, more specifically their daily lives, thoughts.

This way, not just powerful but also millions of marginalized groups would be remembered as they were.

“Controlling this archive will, in a sense, be to control our history,” study co-author David Watson noted.

What happens to our data when we die? Elaine Kasket on a digital dilemma

What happens to our data when we die? Elaine Kasket on a digital dilemma

What happens to our data when we die? Elaine Kasket on a digital dilemma

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Elaine Kasket.
‘Under contract law, privacy ceases on the point of death’: Elaine Kasket. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Elaine Kasket is a counselling psychologist based in London. Her first book, All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age, examines the ethical and technical issues surrounding our data when we die.

If I were to fall under a bus tomorrow, what would happen to my Gmail and Facebook accounts?
Under contract law, privacy ceases on the point of death. But what’s interesting about this area is that big tech treats the erstwhile account holder and their data almost with the same contractual reverence as they would when this person was alive. So they end up privileging that concept over the needs, requests and wishes of the next of kin.

But that’s not what relatives expect; they would assume to inherit data much like they would shoeboxes of letters, photographs and so on.
Exactly. In the UK laws of succession, the two tests are tangibility and value. So if something’s tangible, even if it has no value, you can execute it in a will. Or it will automatically pass to the next of kin if the estate goes to them. So people assume the digital stuff is going to obey the same rules, but it doesn’t.

Generally speaking, what’s the social media company response to relatives’ requests for access to their deceased’s accounts?
Something along the lines of: “We’d love to be able to help you with this but we’re not able to.” They say they are protecting the (technically nonexistent) right of privacy of the deceased. You could call it agency laundering.

Occasionally this attitude has been challenged in court…
One of the most ridiculous cases was where Hollie Gazzard was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Her Facebook account contained photographs of her with her killer. Facebook told the family that they needed to protect Holly’s privacy by not allowing them to selectively edit her profile.

Hasn’t Facebook recently tried to address some of these problems?
Earlier this month it announced it will be using artificial intelligence to stop profiles from sending out troubling things such as birthday reminders and so on. But for every person who’s upset by a reminder there could be another family member who would mourn their loss. Because the thing is, grief is idiosyncratic. There is no rule book for grief. And if there were one, a profit-driven company, such as Facebook, shouldn’t be writing it.

Facebook’s business model is to collect data to encourage people to buy things. Dead people aren’t consumers. What’s the business case for maintaining memorial accounts?
There are several things. The only reason some people stay on Facebook is that there are memorials for people who are dear to them. And once you deactivate your account, the deceased user is no longer able to re-add you – you are locked out of the cemetery.
Another reason is that even if the person is no longer available to buy something, their data can still be analysed and be valuable to a company for a number of purposes.
They used to cull the accounts of deceased users, but there was user backlash from that. Ultimately, automatic profile retention is the least resource-heavy thing to do.

At some point there will be more dead Facebook accounts than live ones.
The Oxford Internet Institute recently predicted there could be 2bn dead Facebook accounts by the end of the century.

That’s a lot of data…
Although we’re doubling what we can store every couple of years, it’s not, like infinite – and our devices capture more and more stuff by default. That surplus data, either with the aid of artificial intelligence or human decision making will be jettisoned, and big tech will be making those decisions.

Meanwhile, people have to act like hackers to gain access to their relatives’ accounts
They are forced to break the law. They are impersonating people, using other people’s passwords… but we let it slide, because what else can you do? I’m not sure if I’m happy to leave someone a set of my passwords; they might find things that were important, but they would have access to everything else. Even if one isn’t harbouring toxic secrets, that’s still quite a thing.

Belief in the afterlife is strengthened by the sense that the dead are remaining socially influential via the internet.

Like people, social networking sites, such as MySpace or Friendster, also die…
The Marie Kondo idea that you should be storing all your books, photographs and music in the cloud, so we have nice clean shelves, is great. But just be aware that your grandchildren might know nothing about you – unless someone is taking the time to think: that platform is becoming obsolete, let’s make sure we download an archive. Companies aren’t going to do this for you; they’re not humanitarians, they are profit-based companies. Look at the history of computing: coding changes, hardware changes, software changes. Your data won’t survive. Moreover, you can’t bequeath your collections of music or books – all you’ve done is purchased a user licence agreement limited by your lifespan. The music isn’t yours; what you have is permission to listen.

Have social media changed how we mourn?
It makes the deceased much more present. The industrial revolution, with its hospitals and suburban cemeteries, enabled us to keep death at arm’s length. But the internet is tailor-made for continuing bonds; it makes it exceptionally easy, because the dead live in tech already. There’s dead people’s data everywhere: their Amazon reviews, their Trip Advisor recommendations. You may encounter something that influences you and have no idea whether it is authored by a dead or a live person. The dead remain socially active in a way that is unprecedented. They are undifferentiated, ambiguously there.

You write about people who leave messages on memorial pages who often talk about “getting through” to the deceased…
The sociologist Tony Walter describes how the internet is a particularly amenable place for angels. Historically, angels were messengers between heaven and Earth, but now they inhabit the ether where we can readily access them. Lots of nonreligious people have a belief in the afterlife, and this is strengthened by the sense that the dead are remaining socially influential via the internet.

An idea explored by Black Mirror and others is that we could one day be able to upload the contents of our brain or our consciousness to the cloud and create a hologram or virtual version of ourselves, which people could continue to interact with. Is this wise?
I find it faintly narcissistic. These people are dealing with their own terror of not being alive. They assume people would still like to hear from them when they are dead! Moreover, you may well run into some of the same problems of digital legacy: the platforms need updating, the code ceases to work, and so on.

What’s the bare minimum you’d advise people to do?
It’s a good idea to clean your digital house frequently. If nothing else, you don’t want relatives buried under a hundredweight of undifferentiated data with no sense of what is important to you. The default is to become a digital extreme hoarder, with data up to the rafters. The things which are really important to you, the artefacts you want to pass on to future generations, put them in a physical form. You cannot trust corporations to safeguard your data.

 All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age is published by Little, Brown (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

You Need To Deal With Your Digital Legacy Right Now

You Need To Deal With Your Digital Legacy Right Now

You Need To Deal With Your Digital Legacy Right Now

Click here to view original web page at You Need To Deal With Your Digital Legacy Right Now

Illustration: Tara Jacoby/GMG

It used to be that when someone died, their executor would follow a standard roadmap to settle their estate: clean out the house, go through the file cabinets, and file a tax return at the end of the year. Now this wasn’t exactly easy – handling the administration after a loved one’s death can be emotionally and logistically brutal – but at least everything you were dealing with was tangible. Nowadays we live our lives at least partly online, and that can mean a big headache for our families when we die: How do you sort through the deceased digital accounts and possessions when you don’t even know what they are?

“Twenty years ago, all an executor needed to do was collect the mail for three months and they’d have everything they need,” says Alison Besunder, a trusts and estates attorney in New York City. “As we move into a paperless, digital society everyone keeps their critical information in their heads.”

How to inventory your digital life – your online bank accounts, your social media, your email — has only recently become standard practice in estate planning. In the binder she gives to clients to help them get organised, Besunder has incorporated questions to get people started on simply identifying the components of their online lives. After all, it’s easy to note in your will that your niece gets the antique clock, but you might totally forget about your Flickr account or ancient LiveJournal.

First Things First

If you haven’t already, you must make a will and designate a fiduciary. You should also consider what happens if you are incapacitated or temporarily disabled, and appoint someone as agent under a power of attorney.

“The power of attorney should include digital-assets provisions designating someone to access your online accounts,” says Besunder. The appointed fiduciary (either the executor when you die or a power of attorney when you’re incapacitated) will handle your affairs; having a will and a power of attorney in place will save your family a huge headache after you’re gone.

To get started, Besunder recommends breaking down the digital estate-planning into bite-sized chunks, and it helps to sort the tasks into categories. There are four major components to your digital life:

  • your passwords
  • your online bank accounts and financial life
  • your email addresses and social media, and
  • your digital assets, like photos or music.

Each one requires a different strategy to ensure that nothing gets lost or forgotten.


You must make sure that your executor can access your computer, your phone, and your accounts. Now, you could just leave a piece of paper on your desk with all your passwords on it, but that presents some obvious problems — passwords tend to change pretty quickly, so you’d have to be diligent about keeping the list updated, and post-its are not really that secure if someone untrustworthy should happen to have access to your desk (absolutely don’t do this for an office computer).

At least make sure someone knows, or has a way of finding out, the code to get into your primary computer and your phone.

One solution is a password manager, which stores your passwords for you; it allows you to designate an emergency contact who can access your “vault” if you die or are incapacitated. Besunder does nod to the fact that anything online is vulnerable to data breaches, so it’s up to you whether you think a document, whether left in plain sight, stored in a file drawer, or stored in an encrypted file, is a better plan than the digital services. (Editor’s note: Lifehacker recommends using a password manager and changing your master password every few months.)

NB: Besunder tells me that the Apple ID is the absolute hardest to get access to after someone’s died (this doesn’t surprise me, as I regularly have trouble getting into my own Apple account). So make sure that that one, at least, is stored somewhere or otherwise accessible to your executor.

Your Financial Life

It’s very green of you to do away with your paper bank statements, but your executor still needs a way to know what your accounts are and how to access them. “At a minimum,” says Besunder, “Hand-write down where you bank, and what the account numbers are, so the fiduciary can get access.” You should do this as well for life insurance policies, stocks, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, and credit cards. While you’re at it, go through your bank and credit-card statements and make a list of your recurring payments, like utilities, tuition, loans, even your Netflix account and newspaper subscriptions. All of this will make closing out those accounts easier for your executor.

Email Addresses and Social Media

The password to your email accounts should be in your password file. For Gmail, you can set up an “inactive account manager” — a dead man’s switch — so that if you don’t log in your account for a certain period of time, your designee will be notified. It offers you the option of including a personal message, which I declined — if I’m contacting my husband from beyond the grave, it’s going to be via good old-fashioned haunting.

Other email providers vary: Yahoo will not turn over your account no matter what you do; Microsoft will send a data DVD of all the contents to your executor; AOL will transfer ownership to another username listed on the account. You will have to wade through the terms of service for your particular provider, but here’s a good overview.

For your social media, what you do might depend on how valuable your online platform is. If you have 7 millions followers on Instagram – something that potentially could be monetised – you’ll want to leave a letter of direction about how you want to handle that account.

Facebook and Instagram both allow accounts to be memorialised; Facebook also allows you to designate legacy contact to manage your memorialised page. Twitter will let your executor or family member deactivate your account, but that’s about it. Again, check out the terms of service for each provider.

Your Digital Assets

If you have significant intellectual property – e.g., you’re a successful novelist and there’s an unfinished manuscript on your hard drive – you should designate a personal representative to handle those parts of your legacy. (Samuel Beckett, for example, did not want women performing in Waiting for Godot, and his estate has tried to enforce that.)

If you have ordinary intellectual property, like photographs or original music stored on hard drives or online services, you should still provide instructions for who owns those in your letter of direction. Your digital collections, like the books and music you buy from iTunes, are trickier – when you click “buy”, you’re not really buying that song, you’re licensing it, and it seems that Apple is not going to let you will your purchases in the same way you could if they were CDs or LPs. And think about any other virtual assets you might have: digital currenciesgames, or domain names, for example.

You would be doing your executor a favour if you cull, organise, and label these things now – I have a bunch of old hard drives in the closet, and I’m sure they all have a million precious photographs on them, so I have a goal of sorting through them and at least labelling them with what they contain. As a second line of defence, I might put them all on Dropbox, so I can share them with other family members who can access them in the event of my death.

Finally, consider your online portfolio, blog, or any other digital space that houses your work. I have hundreds of articles and essays online, and if I were to cork off tomorrow, my family would have no idea where to find them or how to keep them for posterity. I’d like my kids to be able to keep, say, the 20-50 essays that I think they would find meaningful, so I’ll likely save them to an online portfolio, in a dedicated folder as PDFs, or even — I know this is crazy — print them out. Maybe even all three.

Get Help

Feeling overwhelmed? This is exactly what a trusts and estate attorney is for, but you need to find someone who’s up on digital estate planning. The attorney should help you inventory your assets, including your digital assets, and help you leave instructions on how to access them and how to distribute them.

Besunder offers a good series of questions to ask of prospective attorneys: “Find someone you’re comfortable with and who you feel who will answer your questions. People tend to focus on cost, but the most important thing is getting it right and making sure you understand it.” In the initial meeting (or over email), be sure to ask these questions:

  • Have you have taken any courses relating to digital assets and planning? What tips did you learn?
  • How do you incorporate digital legacies into your practice?
  • What questions do you ask clients to get them on the right track?
  • Have you had any tricky situations arise out of digital legacies? How did you handle it?

If you want more info on how to sort through everything, check out Besunder’s thoughts on exactly this topic. The site The Digital Beyond is also helpful, including this post on the writer’s experience with LastPass.

For my own estate planning, I’m sorting through this bit by bit, beginning with my passwords and bank accounts. Which I’m writing on a durable, and tangible, piece of paper.