Estate Planning for the Digital Life

Estate Planning for the Digital Life

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?

Preparing Digital Assets for Your Eventual Death

Preparing Digital Assets for Your Eventual Death

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):

It took her several years to grieve and put her family’s life back on track enough to the point where she could focus on helping others. In A Shocking Death, a Financial Lesson and Help for Others, she told the New York Times:

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:

Last June, WebpageFX created a super useful infographic, What Happens to Your Online Presence When You Die?

WebpageFX Digital Demise
WebpageFX Digital Demise

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.

WebpageFX Facebook Dead Outnumber the living
WebpageFX Facebook Dead Outnumber the living

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.

In fact there’s been a lot of good media coverage of these topics. PBS NewsHour offered: Dead and online: What happens to your digital estate when you die?:

and The New York Times Magazine provided, Cyberspace When You’re Dead.

What You Should Prepare

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 legacy services such as Capsoole, which we’ll discuss below, that make it possible to delete private content from these accounts posthumously. My app Simplify Email can regularly expire (delete) messages from specific senders or in specific folders. See Building Advanced Email Features With IMAP and PHP (Tuts+).

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.

Social Media

Who knows what social media will look like in the future? Recently Boing Boing featured Killing Time At LightSpeed, an intriguing, fun look at social media in 2042.

Social Media in 2042 Killing Time At LightSpeed
Social Media in 2042 Killing Time At LightSpeed

Make yourself familiar with the policies of the services you participate in. WebpageFX’s What Happens to Your Online Presence When You Die? is very helpful for this.

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:

The Digital Beyond Online Services list and Extinct Businesses
The Digital Beyond Online Services list and Extinct Businesses

Here’s another dead man service promoted in Slashdot that’s passed on:

Software Dead Mans Switch Already Dead
Software Dead Mans Switch Already Dead

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).

Emerging Services

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.

Password Box acquires Legacy Locker
Password Box acquires Legacy Locker


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:

Capsoole Services Google Authentication
Capsoole Services Google Authentication

Right about here is where you should be having second thoughts:

Capsoole would like to view and manage your email
Capsoole would like to view and manage your email

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.

Dead Mans Switch Why How When
Dead Mans Switch Why How When

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.

Dead Mans Switch Plans and Pricing
Dead Mans Switch Plans and Pricing

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.


What’s Next?

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.

If you’d like to know when the next tutorial arrives, follow me @reifman on Twitter or check my instructor page.

Related Links


Why you need to consider your digital legacy when making a will

Why you need to consider your digital legacy when making a will

An increasing number of people, of all ages, have an online presence be it by way of email, Facebook, Twitter or online banking but how much consideration have you given to your ‘digital legacy’? How will your Executors access your online bank accounts? Do you want your Facebook account to remain active and would you want your loved ones to be able to access your emails after you have died?

A recent study by Co-Operative Funeralcare has highlighted the difficulties which can be experienced in respect of matters such as this. The BBC reported that “The poll of more than 2,000 adults also discovered that almost 80% of those who attempted to manage online bank, utility, shopping and social media accounts following a death said they had experienced problems” and that “Only 16% of people, however, said they wanted their next of kin to have access to their social media accounts, with around the same number saying they would like them to stay in touch with their online contacts.”

So, what can be done to make life easier for your loved ones after you have died?

In February this year, Facebook announced new ‘legacy settings’ which are currently being trialled in the USA. These will allow a nominated person to access a Facebook account and set up a ‘memorial page’. Other internet providers are also addressing this issue; for example Google’s ‘Inactive Account Manager’ operates in a similar way. However, every service provider is different and although progress has been made in recent years, there is no one size fits all solution at present.

However, this is not to say that action should not be taken and in general terms you should at least give consideration to the following (please note that this list is by no means exhaustive):

– Who do you want to be able to access online accounts?

– How will they obtain your passwords? Note that it is never a good idea to refer to passwords in your Will and nor is it usually advisable to hand over passwords during your lifetime.

– What do you want that person to do once they have accessed your account? Do you want it closed? Would you want it to remain active?

– Bearing the above in mind, does the relevant service provider already have provision in place and crucially, would someone accessing your account after your death be a breach of their rules (it is necessary to carefully check the relevant service user agreement in respect of this).

– If you have downloaded music or other media to your computer it is often a good idea to burn this onto a disc before you die as some service providers (iTunes is a good example) only permit you to listen to music downloaded by way of a licence which terminates on your death.

– If you have photographs stored on your computer, likewise, it is a good idea to print off hard-copies to ensure that they are not lost after you die. This is also particularly so for social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, some of whom have a policy of deleting photographs of a deceased user unless, it is in the public interest for it to remain in place.

It is a good idea to write all this information down – preferably in hard copy – and to then ensure that your Executors know where to find the relevant information when the time comes.

As with your Will it is also important to review any such letter of wishes from time to time to ensure that it is still accurate. If your digital presence has more than pure sentimental value then further, professional, advice should always be sought. This is also the case if you operate businesses online or if there are likely to be copyright issues.

Have you considered these issues when making your will? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below


Ways to Protect Your Online Accounts After Death

Ways to Protect Your Online Accounts After Death

When it comes to managing your digital assets after death, there are two primary issues to consider: your legacy and your privacy. When you’re gone, your online presence might be one of the primary ways that people, including future family members, learn about who you were. Does an online search of your name bring up details about who you are that help tell your story, both through the images of you that are posted online as well as any blog posts, social media profile pages or other websites?

You also want to make sure your privacy and security are protected in both life and death. Depending on what you share online and your privacy settings on your social media accounts, including Facebook, it might be possible for a stranger to figure out details such as your birth date, mother’s maiden name and marriage anniversary. Those kind of details can make it possible for hackers to guess your password and break into financial and other online accounts. Reviewing your privacy settings and making sure that one trusted person knows your passwords and how to handle your accounts after your death can help protect those accounts.

Because so many people are active on social media, and, as a result, users die every day, social media companies have been updating their death policies and providing more options for grieving family members. Twitter now considers requests from family members to delete upsetting images of users who have died, but the company does not honor every request, especially if the images are newsworthy. Facebook, meanwhile, offers the option of having a family member ​delete the account altogether or create a memorialized page. (Family members often turn to memorialized Facebook pages after a family member’s death to share comments, photos and memories.) LinkedIn also allows family members of the deceased user to delete​ the account, as does Twitter.​ In most cases, the companies require a death certificate and confirmation of the relative’s identity.

Just like when it comes to managing your financial assets, your digital assets can benefit from organization and a point person. Providing your trusted person, such as a lawyer or family member, with an overview of all your accounts, along with the relevant passwords, can make it easier for them to follow your wishes after death, whether it’s shutting down the account or preserving some aspects of it, like photos. (You’ll want to make sure that information is stored in a secure and private place; wills are not the place for passwords because they are public documents.)

Taking this kind of precaution is helpful not just in the case of unexpected death, but also if you become incapacitated for some reason and unable to manage your accounts. For example, if you have a stroke and can’t use Facebook for a period of time, you might want that trusted person to post updates for friends and family members on your behalf.

Here are a few more tips to consider when it comes to preparing your online accounts:

1. Make as many decisions in advance as possible. Would you want your Facebook account deleted or memorialized? Similarly, do you want a family member to have access to your email accounts or would you prefer they be deleted after death? Are there some digital assets, such as a music or e-book collection, that you want to pass on to somebody? If you make your choices before death and describe your wishes​ in your will, then you have a better chance of making sure your digital assets are handled exactly the way you want them to be.

2. Consider getting outside help. ​The marketplace has noticed a demand for help managing one’s digital afterlife and has responded accordingly. You can work with an estate lawyer to add details about managing your digital assets or take advantage of a website like that can help walk you through the different considerations.

3. Create complex passwords. Make sure online passwords are hard to guess so hackers don’t try to break into your accounts after reading an online obituary. Unfortunately, scam artists often read obituary notices before picking their targets. You might want to also consider heightening your security settings on social media accounts to make it harder for a stranger to log in to your accounts from a different location.

Funerals and Instagram: A look at the funeral hashtags

Remember online legacy, quite virtually

A Dorset law firm is ‘virtually’ warning internet users to remember their digital legacy when making a will.

Battens Solicitors is urging people to consider how they want their online presence and assets to be managed as well as their finances and heirlooms.

It comes after a grieving mum became embroiled in a dispute with Facebook after the social media giant locked or ‘memorialised’ her daughter’s account following her tragic death from a brain tumour at 19.

Although much of Becky Palmer’s account remained visible, her mother Louise was unable to continue to access her late daughter’s account – including private messages – using her old log-in details.

Battens has advised people to leave categoric instructions on paper about what should happen to their digital assets after they are gone but also provide a list of online accounts so they aren’t missed by the executor.

These can include social media, online computer games, banks accounts, music, films, investments, photos, email, PayPal and even Bitcoinaccounts.

Christine Butterfield, Dorchester-based solicitor in Battens’ wills, estates and trusts department, said: “We live in a digital world where many of our assets and treasured memories are online.

“Although it makes life more convenient, it can be more difficult to pass keepsakes, such as photos, letters and music, on or ensure social media and online accounts are dealt with in accordance with someone’s wishes.”

She added: “We are seeing an increasing number of people consider their digital legacy when they make or update their will.

“People can leave a record of their digital assets and accounts with their will, and how they would like these managed.

“For example, they can leave instructions for their social media accounts to be deleted or archived, or for pictures to be printed out and passed on to the appropriate person.

“It is also prudent to leave a list of online bank and financial accounts with a will as an executor may not be aware these exist if statements are only in a digital form on email.

“Client confidentiality is always respected so this is a much safer way than leaving a list of passwords or PINs with a relative or on a computer.”

The Law Society, the independent professional body for solicitors, has also urged people to leave clear instructions about their online assets and presence.

It said that having a list would also make it easier for the deceased’s family and executor of the estate to fulfil their wishes.