Rarely do we think of our online presence as an “asset,” or consider who should take over our Facebook pages, personal blogs, and other virtual accounts in the event of our death. Having a Digital Estate Plan can protect against identity theft and ensure your personal information – like photographs, documents, and conversations – fall into the hands of people you can trust.
Creating this kind of plan may seem like a difficult task, but here are five steps to ensure your digital estate is covered just as completely as your physical one:
Create an inventory list of all digital assets and how to access them
For security purposes, it’s best to create two lists – one with all your account names, and another will the account passwords. This reduces the risk of an unwanted individual acquiring the document and having access to your personal information.
On this list, you will want to ensure to include account information for all social media accounts, blogs and websites, and email addresses, but also accounts that access more personal information, like online access accounts to loans, credit or debit cards, insurance accounts, or accounts that allow you to pay bills online.
Store this information in a safe place
Now that you’ve written down how to access some very important accounts and information, you’ll want to ensure it is protected from falling into the hands of someone looking to steal your identity. Store these documents somewhere password protected, or in a safety deposit box at your bank, or with someone you can trust.
Decide who will carry out your digital estate plan
Name your digital executor, or the person who will fulfill your end-of-life digital wishes, in your will. This person should be someone able to handle the sensitive information left behind, but also someone who has strong technological skills and can ensure the accounts are handled.
Choose what should happen to your digital accounts after your death
Create a list of the next steps your digital executor should take after your death. Decide if you would like your accounts to remain open, or should they be shut down.
Make sure to consider things like: What should happen to the photos on social media pages like Facebook or Flickr? Who takes control of any active websites or blogs? Do you want your Facebook page left active as a memorial?
Create a final message to share online
If you would like someone to post a final message to your friends and family after your passing, make sure to outline what that would look like. This could include a picture of you and a message to your loved ones, or a video of your life.
In this increasingly technological age, grief and the grieving process can adopt many forms. This individual experience can be further complicated by the deceased’s online presence on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which can live on in perpetuity after their death.
Grieving online may be a new occurrence, but culturally speaking, after-death rituals are nothing new. While some may find modern coping methods in poor taste or even unsettling, they often share much in common with historical expressions of grief. For example, so-called ‘funeral selfies’ are one recent trend that many find distasteful, yet there is actually a rich history of post-mortem photography, either for remembrance’s sake or out of necessity.
When it comes to the official policies on social media sites like Facebook, memorial statuses are the preferred method of online grieving. These statuses offer a respectful reminder of the deceased, while also letting new visitors know that the person is longer living. Though this can be helpful for some users, there are a few changes that take place once a memorial page is established.
First, the family must initiate the process of memorializing or preserving the page. If the family does not have access to the deceased person’s account, this can require submitting proof to the website to establish control of the user page. Once the website agrees to memorialize the page, the profile will lose a number of capabilities. Profiles will no longer be visible in public searches, and friends will be unable to ‘tag’ the deceased with fond memories for their families to enjoy. It may also be impossible to add new friends to the page after it changes. In some instances, Facebook may delete memorial pages if they are found to be inappropriate.
Original Profile…or No Profile
Because of these restrictions, some choose to let their loved one’s original profile remain unaltered after death. Many see it as a reminder of those who’ve passed in their lives, while also establishing a place to share memories with others close to the deceased. This can be incredibly cathartic for anyone still grieving, as it affords an outlet for emotions, especially during difficult times such as the holidays. Users who prefer this method sometimes say that it feels as if the person is still in some ways an active part of their life.
In the end, handling the online presence of a deceased loved one is ultimately up to the family and those closest to the person, though in some cases the deceased may still have some say. As people become increasingly savvy with social media, more and more people are including how to handle this situation as part of their will. For those who are looking to plan ahead, the Digital Death Guide can take some of the mystery out of creating and managing a digital legacy.
In the end, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to digital immortality, as the grieving experience differs greatly from person to person. However, one thing remains certain: technology will continue to make an impact on collective humanity, in life and in death.
Making plans for what happens to our online presence after we pass away could save our loved ones unnecessary pain and distress, say probate experts.
Research suggests three out of four people have not thought about how their family will access and manage their social media, email and online financial accounts when they die.
Lynda Monks, a senior Wills and Probate solicitor at Macks Solicitors in Middlesbrough with 30 years’ experience, warns this can store up problems for the future.
“When a loved one passes away it leaves a huge hole in our lives and so many emotional challenges to overcome,” she said. “There are also the practical issues that must be dealt with, such as sorting out financial affairs.
“In the past there would have been paper documentation to help track down all the accounts and any assets such as stocks and shares, but increasingly this is no longer the case.
“In the modern digital world we often hold many accounts with different PIN numbers, passwords and digital access codes. We rarely think to give the information about what they are and how they can be accessed to anyone else.
“This can lead to enormous difficulties for those who are left behind and can really add to the distress they are feeling at an already difficult time.”
A recent survey by The Co-operative Funeralcare revealed that 78 per cent of those who have looked after a loved one’s online accounts after death experienced difficulties, while a fifth were unable to manage the process at all.
Lynda added: “Talking about what should happen if you die before your partner or other relatives isn’t an easy thing to do, but it is very important to let someone know what accounts you hold, how to access them and what you would like to happen to them.
“As a recent survey highlighted the fact that the UK population now owns £2.3bn of Internet assets, it’s essential to leave instructions regarding your digital assets – your family could be very grateful that you did.
“Making a Will is one very practical way you can make plans for the future and make it known what you would like to happen to your assets. Another practical step is to consider your ‘digital legacy’. Many people mistakenly believe it helps if they include this information in their will.
“However, your Will becomes a public document when it goes through the probate court, which could mean sensitive information being read and exploited by fraudsters.
“A better solution would be to leave a sealed letter containing details of your online accounts, as well as PINs and passwords, along with your Will at your solicitor’s office. In this way your confidential information is only available to your Executors.
“Many of us already let our families know what kind of funeral arrangements we would like, so why shouldn’t we also make plans for our digital future as well? In today’s technological world, we need to consider the rights of access to our online life and assets.”
As well as leaving details of financial accounts and how to access them, other questions to consider include whether you would want your next of kin to have access to your social media accounts and whether you’d like a status update or online post to let friends and followers know you’ve passed away.
Social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn will all need to be closed or turned into memorial pages after your death. Facebook recently changed its policy to enable users to appoint an online executor who can maintain their account posthumously.
You should also think about what you’d like to happen to your email accounts, any digital music, photographs, films or books you own or money held in online gambling accounts.
While individuals will eventually pass on, the internet is forever. Online accounts from games, apps and social media are becoming increasingly valuable. In an age of expanding online presence, estate planners and administrators should take into account the digital life of the client or the decedent, even if online accounts may not always trigger ownership or property issues.
Confronted with the growing problem of how to treat the deaths of account holders, Facebook recently put into place a mechanism by which an account holder may designate a “legacy contact” to administer her or his Facebook account after the account holder’s death. This digital personal representative can then update the profile, write a post on the profile to share a message or information, and change the profile picture and cover photo of the deceased user. Facebook also allows users to give advance directives as to how the account does or does not live on after death. Twitter and LinkedIn have yet to create such simple mechanisms for planning for the digital estate, but account holders should include with relevant estate planning documents the necessary credentials to carry out actions concerning these and other accounts after death. In many instances, these accounts require substantial documentation to end or modify the accounts, with potentially undesirable results.
Digital life also creates tricky problems for finding financial assets, as online accounts can contain assets that clearly fall within the bounds of an estate. For instance, a relatively new app called “Acorns” rounds up purchases from an account holder’s checking and credit accounts to the nearest dollar and deposits those funds in an investment account. These accounts can be tricky to discover. The only proof of the existence of an Acorns account may be in the confirmation email sent to the account holder or the app itself. The estate’s personal representative would then have no knowledge of the existence of the account without first checking the decedent’s smartphone. Ongoing eBay auctions may commit the estate to sell certain assets, while PayPal may hold a balance to liquidate. Other types of accounts, such as World of WarCraft accounts or property held in virtual worlds such as Second Life, may have real market value that should be included in the estate. World of WarCraft and Second Life are analogous to video games, except the protagonist is unique to the user and can learn skills, create products, work jobs or even own property in a virtual setting. These two online platforms allow users to interact with players from around the world and build value in their characters or properties that holds true dollar value for the estate. For instance, one World of Warcraft player in 2007 sold a valuable character for roughly $9,500.
Estate planning and administration should take the testator’s digital life into account for planning purposes. As more individuals spend their time online, the assets that they create there will have to find a secure place within a plan for the future or risk floating in the internet ether for a digital eternity. Does your estate plan adequately cover your online assets? Will your family be able to adequately memorialize you in the digital realm?
Update: I first pitched this series to Tuts+ because I thought it was an interesting, under-reported topic. After completing the first two episodes, I learned that I had a treatable, operable, likely benign brain tumor which will require surgery. My prognosis is very good, but those first few days were intermittently terrifying and poignant—the topics explored in this series became very real to me overnight.I hope you’ll take my experience to heart, read mindfully, and consider taking action to get your shit together. Please also check out my personal essay:What We Can Learn From My Brain Tumor. Enjoy the series.
This is the second of a series on exploring the complexity of managing your digital legacy. If you’d like, go back and read part one, Hosting Your Website After Death. In this episode, I’ll share with you what you should do to prepare your digital legacy prior to a health emergency or your death.
Just a reminder, I do participate in the comment threads below. If you have a question or want to suggest a future topic, please post a comment below. You can also reach me on Twitter@reifman or email me directly.
Get Your Shit Together
After my friend Chanel Reynold’s husband José died in a tragic cycling accident, she had the inspiration for Get Your Shit Together (GYST):
I was finding it really hard for me to stay present and in the room and to be able to hear what the doctors were saying because I was so overwhelmed with not knowing how much money we had in our checking account, and the fact that we had our wills drafted but not signed.
Check it out—GYST provides helpful checklists to make emergency preparedness easier. While its lists address wills, living wills, life insurance and personal loose ends, it only makes passing mentions of passwords.
Facing the Inevitable
A counselor of mine used to say, “No one’s getting off this planet alive.” While the Mars One folks are trying to change that, it’s probably true for most of us. Hopefully you’ll have the time you need to plan your affairs. But what if you face a sudden health emergency where you’re temporarily incapacitated, or a partner or family member dies unexpectedly?
Even Facebook Users Die
An Australian life insurance company produced this intriguing advertisement, What Happens Online When You Die, saying that three Facebook users die every minute and reminding us of the privacy concerns our digital death presents:
Since I stopped using Facebook a couple of years ago, I was particularly amused by the estimate that not too long from now there will be more dead users of Facebook than living ones. I’m sure Facebook will find a way to market the dead to advertisers and I’m glad I won’t be part of that.
The Digital Beyond
Perhaps Facebook will try to market its knowledge of the dead to our vulnerable descendants, as depicted in the brilliant Black Mirror series, Be Right Back:
The Digital Beyond is a website that reports on issues related to our digital afterlife. It’s an excellent starting point for anyone interested in learning more. You can also listen to one of my favorite journalists, Brooke Gladstone, interview Evan Carroll, one of the bloggers behind the site: Our Digital Afterlives.
Here’s a high-level list of what you should prepare to provide your family members in a safe, secure manner.
Credentials to Critical Accounts
In addition to all of the GYST checklists, you should provide access to critical credentials and accounts such as PINs for your ATM, credit cards and home alarm master, device passwords for phones, laptops and desktop computers (and firmware passwords), and password storage software (e.g. 1Password).
If you have any public keys or perhaps SSH keys for managing your website, these need to be provided as well—with documentation.
Email, the Gateway Account
Of course you should provide access to critical email accounts. As third party authentication services become more commonplace, certain services are becoming lynchpins to many other services. For example, your Google account can log you in to a variety of other services. Provide a list of the linked accounts.
Keep in mind that there may be materials you don’t wish to share. For example, your Google account provides access to all of your emails and Google Drive files. It’s useful to think about segmenting private materials ahead of an emergency, e.g. using a separate email account for messages you wish to remain private forever.
There are also services that allow you to posthumously send emails. These can deliver credentials but they can also be social. For example, maybe you want to send birthday messages to your children annually after you pass on. These services activate by means of a dead man switch.
Think ahead about what you would like to happen to your social accounts, and then be specific with instructions and provide the credentials necessary for your descendants to act appropriately.
Digital Assets: Blogs, Photography, etc.
In part one, Hosting Your Website After Death, I reviewed how difficult it is to plan for web hosting after you’re gone. I think the best approach is to provide clear wishes and thorough instructions for your descendants on what you’d like to be done with your online assets. It’s probably also useful to set aside funding for them to pay the bills. Don’t count on anything being preserved more than ten years without a lot of guidance and attention.
Digital Legacy Services
There are a number of emerging services to help manage our digital assets in case of emergency or death. But many of these are small businesses or startups. I question how secure, reputable and reliable these companies are.
In many cases, their business model is built around their customers storing credentials to vital accounts. This makes them a perfect target for hackers.
In the past year, my Fortune 500 financial services company and health insurer were both hacked, requiring them to agree to purchase identity theft services for all of their members. Do we really expect digital afterlife startups to be better at security than these companies?
What if hackers were able to obtain keys to all of my accounts by hacking into a legacy service? What if they did it after I passed on?
For the moment, I’d be very cautious what you use these services for.
There’s an alphabetical Online Services List at The Digital Beyond which provides a useful reference. Just be cautious. Many of the businesses are already defunct:
Here’s another dead man service promoted in Slashdot that’s passed on:
My recommendation is only to use services that let you encrypt your cloud-based archive with your own password-protected private key which they don’t have access to.
For now, a “simple” DIY solution would be to store your own encrypted document at Dropbox or another cloud provider and provide your family member with local access to decryption keys. Or provide your family members with a semi-secret location of the encrypted archive, and host the decryption keys with a dead man switch or legacy service (or two).
Here are a few emerging services that you may want to check out. Perhaps I will explore these more in future episodes:
PasswordBox, which acquired Legacy Locker. Keep in mind acquisitions are a primary transition point at which the best plans of your digital legacy can be compromised by someone else’s profit model.
Capsoole asks for access to all of your accounts so you can pre-program privacy controls that delete sensitive materials. In the meantime, cross your fingers they don’t get hacked.
Here’s an example of Capsoole requesting access to my life on Google:
Right about here is where you should be having second thoughts:
Dead Man’s Switch
Dead Man’s Switch (DMS) was profiled in that On the Media segment above. They encourage you to use it to send both credentials as well as social emails in your digital afterlife.
Personally, I found the $20 lifetime price too cheap to believe in. I’d almost rather they charge me $1,000. That would be more reassuring.
Neither did the site make me feel comfortable that they are capable of robustly securing my credentials in cold storage.
I think it’s wise to remember that all of these business could be hacked (some may even be funded covertly by the NSA) and it’s unlikely any of them will be around in ten years. Keep that in mind and then plan accordingly.
Well, it looks like you’ve survived the first two episodes of our series about preparing for your death online. I hope you’ve found it entertaining and useful thus far. Depending on feedback from readers, we may offer more tutorials in this area. Let us know what you want to learn more about. We welcome feature and topic requests. You can post them in the comments below or email me at my Lookahead Consulting website.