What happens to your digital property when you die? This can be a very challenging issue for your executor when settling your estate.
You can make your executor’s job easier by listing all the electronic devices and online services that you use. With a letter of direction, you can tell your executor what should happen to them after you die.
Use an address book or worksheet to alphabetically list your devices and online accounts. Then tell your executor where to find your list. User names and passwords on your inventory list are the keys to open the doors to your electronic devices and keep online accounts active.
Remember that Canada’s privacy laws make it difficult for your executor to take over the online accounts of another person. When you sign up for an online account, the terms of service agreement restricts access to the account-holder only. That means you cannot bequeath your social media account, video game account, or gambling account to a beneficiary even if they have great value.
In the U.S., many states have created laws to give an executor the right to access and manage digital assets of a dead person. No similar laws have been enacted in Canada yet. Until our laws are updated and service providers change their policies, Canadians can include clauses in their wills that give executors permission to deal with digital assets.
Your executor can browse your email messages to track down estate assets. Email messages give clues about bills to be paid. Email reminders to download T5 and T4RIF slips can lead to financial accounts. Your emails will reveal confirmations of business, gaming, streaming and shopping transactions.
Maybe you have YouTube videos or a blog that generates advertising revenue. If you are receiving thousands of dollars per month in payments from ad clicks, your executor would want to maintain that revenue stream.
Do you own a valuable domain name? Remind your executor to pay the fee to renew the registration until the domain name is sold.
Your executor should find all your electronic hardware such as smartphones, tablets or laptop computers. Keep these devices and safeguard them until data can be extracted. Once all online accounts have been closed or transferred, electronic devices can be stripped and passed along with other estate assets.
After you have died, your executor can access and delete your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts by knowing your passwords. What if the family wants continued access to their loved one’s online photos and personal messages? Social media websites will eventually take steps to protect privacy as a standard security procedure.
Facebook allows family members to either delete or “memorialize” the accounts of a deceased user. In a memorialized account, a person’s existing friends network can leave comments and photos but nobody has permission to log in or edit the account.
Music, e-books and photos
Who gets your collection of digital photos and videos in online cloud storage and social media sites after you die? Some digital assets cannot be legally bequeathed to anyone. You pay for a personal licence to use digital files, such as iTunes music and e-books. These personal rights expire when the user dies.
Even if you bequeath your iPad to a family member, you cannot bequeath the apps you have purchased and installed on your iPad.
Thieves can use a dead person’s information to create a fake identity to rack up credit card charges and apply for loans. Your executor can safeguard the estate by notifying credit agencies of the death.
Terry McBride, a member of Advocis, works with Raymond James Ltd. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Raymond James Ltd. Information is from sources believed reliable but cannot be guaranteed. This is provided for information only. We recommend that clients seek independent advice from a professional adviser on tax-related matters. Securities offered through Raymond James Ltd., member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund. Insurance services offered through Raymond James Financial Planning Ltd., not a member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund.
Not everyone wants to leave this earth with their online accounts being managed by relatives and next-of-kin, or just floating around on the Internet forever. If you’re the kind of person who likes your privacy — even in death — you should probably make some plans to have all of your online and social media accounts nuked when you pass away.
Some services, such as Google and Facebook, let you set up your eventual account deletion before you get anywhere close to death. Other services will keep your account forever unless an immediate family member or the executor of your estate requests it be removed. Here’s how to make sure all your loose ends are tied up, and that nobody ever gets hold of your top-secret/possibly incriminating emails and Twitter direct messages.
Google’s Inactive Account Manager lets you choose what happens to your account when it becomes inactive for a certain period of time. You can set up the Inactive Account Manager to delete your Google account and all products associated with that account, including Gmail, Blogger, AdSense, and YouTube.
To set this up, log in to your Google account and go to this page. You will need to provide Google with a phone number for alerts — Google will send a message to this number before your account times out, so you know your account is about to become inactive. You will then need to select a timeout period (3 months, 6 months, 9 months, one year, 15 months, or 18 months).
Then, under Optionally delete account, turn on Delete my account. Click Enable to turn the Inactive Account Manager on, and you’re set. If you fail to log in to your account for the timeout period you selected, Google will delete your Google account and all data associated with it.
Facebook is one of few online services that lets you set a legacy contact — someone who can manage parts of your account and memorialize your page — for when you die. Facebook also lets you delete your account when you die (though it doesn’t use inactivity to determine that you’ve passed away).
To make sure your Facebook account is deleted when you die, open Facebook and go to Settings > Security > Legacy Contact. Check the box next to Account Deletion.
You will see a pop-up box asking if you really want to delete your account in the future. Click Delete After Death and then re-enter your Facebook password to save your changes. Your account will now be deleted when Facebook is notified of your death — this means that if anybody tries to memorialize your page, it will be deleted instead of memorialized.
Use a digital legacy service
Google and Facebook give you the power to delete your account when you die, but many sites and services — such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Microsoft, and Yahoo — do not. These sites will delete the account of a deceased person at the request of an immediate family member or the executor of an estate (by the way, you can and should delineate how you want your digital life to be handled in your last will and testament). If you want to take full control, you can use a digital legacy services like Perpetu.
Perpetu is an online service that covers Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Flickr, LinkedIn and GitHub. You connect your accounts to Perpetu, and then you outline your final wishes for each service — for example, you can request that Perpetu delete certain emails from your Gmail account, delete tweets and direct messages from Twitter, or delete files from your Dropbox account.
The service can’t really delete actual accounts, but it can delete data and leave final updates for your friends and family to see. Perpetu’s service kicks in when the company receives a report of your death from a trusted contact with your reporting code, so it’s still a good idea to put this in your will.
Are online services for sending messages after death a first step towards immortality, or an unfair way of refusing to relinquish control even from beyond the grave?
I was surprised to discover recently that there is a huge industry dedicated to offering “digital death and online afterlife” services, which include everything from dealing with your digital estate to leaving posthumous (and sometimes post-dated) messages to recording your own obituary. Digital estate planning is certainly a vital service that none of us can ignore, but many of the other services offered filled me with dismay.
Am I the only one who thinks that perhaps once we’re in our grave, even the most controlling of control freaks should learn to let go? That writing your own obituary misses the point? It seems to me that if you can’t trust someone else to write your obituary, perhaps you didn’t live your life the way you thought you did.
I also think that doing it all yourself is a bit unfair on your loved ones. Delivering a eulogy or choosing the right verse to engrave on a tombstone creates a space for memory. It encourages the mourners to articulate their loss, to talk about their loved one, to find a way to express all that they loved or admired in that person. Although these activities bring pain and heartache, they are also therapeutic for those who are grieving. Having to write a eulogy or organize a tombstone gives the mourners something relevant and meaningful to do at a time of sadness and uncertainty. It seems a shame to take that opportunity away.
It’s more than that, though. I feel that these digital legacy planners who write their own obituaries and dictate how they are to be remembered chip away at the importance of memory. I’ll give you an example. Recently, a friend of ours was suddenly and tragically killed in a car accident. In the hours after he passed away, his friends and family shared memories of him on social media. Organically and spontaneously, the same theme kept coming up again and again. A multi-dimensional picture of a caring, loving, friendly man became clearer and sharper with every story shared and memory remembered. It was a true reflection of who he was, and I think there was a measure of comfort in seeing it appear. If he had left a message telling us that reaching out to other people had always mattered most to him, it would not have brought the same comfort (or, I think, have been as meaningful) as the shared experience of friends and family sharing that same conclusion.
I have to admit that it bothers me that some of these websites are trying to vanquish death by offering e-mortality. Websites likeToLovedOnes, which encourages you to send written or video messages to your loved ones in the future, promising to deliver them at the right time. TheVoiceLibrary, which guarantees that your voice will be preserved for future generations. Or LifeNaut, a service that allows you to “create interactive avatars, upload content, and even a DNA sample so that you can create a free back-up of [your] mind and genetic code.” There has even been a TED talk that suggests that soon we could live forever on social media as a digital version of ourselves, which stores all our likes and dislikes, characteristics, and personality quirks so that we can eternally post and tweet on Twitter and Facebook (which might sound like purgatory to many of us). But everyone who knows some fairy tales knows that no one ever wins when they try to vanquish death.
Before you tell me that I’m being unfair, I acknowledge that everyone who has lost a loved one wishes that they could hear their voice one more time, talk to them, be with them once more. If we were given the chance to see our partner once again, to hear a parent’s voice or to share something with a friend, we’d probably all take it. It’s a human desire and an entirely understandable one. It is painful to say goodbye to a man or woman we love, but we all know that the alternative is to live in the past.
In the final book in the famous Harry Potter series, Rowling writes about the Resurrection Stone. It’s a stone which can bring people back to life, and in the legend which Rowling weaves, it was created when a wizard asked Death for a way to bring back the girl he had loved who had died young. The Stone brings his lover back to him, but she is a living ghost. The wizard could see her and hear her and talk with her every day, but he couldn’t connect with her. Eventually his inability to build a deeper relationship with her brought him to such a depression that he killed himself.
It seems to me that these digital afterlife sites are like Rowling’s Resurrection Stone. They promise us control from beyond the grave, but it’s all just a hologram. Online or offline, all we can do is live honestly, love deeply, and trust that those we leave behind will do the same.
Human fascination with immortality stretches back to the time of Greek mythology with history littered by charlatans, oddballs and megalomaniacs either claiming or seeking the secret to eternal life.
However, the modern tech-savvy generation has discovered, quite by chance, that an immortality of sorts is now freely available via the digital footprint they leave should they meet an untimely end. It’s estimated that on Facebook alone, more than 30 million accounts belong to people who are deceased.
As if the pain of coping with the death of a loved one isn’t difficult enough, friends and family must now consider the implications of the deceased’s online life to go with their material existence.
Your online footprint
Think for a moment about your own digital presence. You’ll almost certainly use online banking and shopping facilities, perhaps an online wallet like PayPal, email accounts, a frequent flyer program, a social media presence via Facebook or Twitter, along with potentially thousands of personal files, receipts and photographs.
Most people already understand the importance of estate planning to help pass on worldly goods such as housing, savings and mementos to their beneficiaries. But how will your heirs even gain access to your computer and your passwords?
Like so many laws relating to the digital world, many are outdated or irrelevant, and several online services have already established their own policies. For instance, Twitter allows family or friends to download a copy of your public tweets and close your account. You need to nominate someone in advance to provide their name and contact details, their relationship to you, your Twitter username and a link to or copy of your obituary.
No laws currently exist in Australia to grant a Will’s executor automatic access to someone’s social media accounts. However, there are still several options available to help decide on how your online legacy is managed.
The first step is to create a Digital Will. In addition, you will need to select a trustworthy digital executor to handle arrangements for your digital assets and digital legacy once you are gone. Similarly, if you run your own business, it will have its own digital incarnation and its own digital legacy to maintain. Some Australian Will makers offer Digital Wills so people can ensure their online legacy lives on – or fades away – in accordance with their wishes.
Online vaults for safe storage
An increasingly popular alternative is to store important documents and passwords in an online vault. The likes of SecureSafe, Legacy Lockboxor Assets in Order pledge to provide secure online storage of passwords and documents.
Password management accounts can be set up using software such as Norton Identity Safe while Google recently introduced a new program called Inactive Account Manager, which enables you to choose in advance exactly what you wish to have done with all your Google data – from Gmail accounts to YouTube videos.
Considering how much of our communication takes place online these days, it’s worth investing some time thinking about your digital footprint and what is required to manage it when you’re gone. A good time to do this might be when next reviewing your Wills and Powers of Attorney. With a little thought and preparation, you can leave a lasting legacy to your loved ones, well beyond photos or videos, and avoid complications associated with your ‘digital immortality’.
When approaching the difficult task of accessing websites and online accounts, dealing with it is divided between two options: having the password or not having the password.
If you have a password – you can get in
If you don’t have a password, but have access to an e-mail account, in most of the websites you could click on “I forgot my password” and a link will be sent by e-mail, to create a new password. Once you have created it, you can get into the website / account
If you haveneither a password nor access to an e-mail account, the dealings get more complicated, because they involve approaching the online services providers. Some are already set for dealing with death of clients and present clear policies and guidelines in this regard, but some are still grappling with it or have done so until recently. Twitter, for instance, published their policy only in August 2010.
Another element you’ll need to take into consideration is TIME. In certain cases, only a narrow window of time is available through which you could take care of the deceased’s digital legacy:
On facebook, for instance, at any moment someone might turn his or her profile into a memorial profile (your consent isn’t required and you’ll find yourselves locked out of the account – even if you have a valid password). Therefore, the first thing I recommend you do is download a copy of the profile’s content (for “how to” scroll down, under “Facebook”).
Sometimes you’ll have access to accounts only for a limited amount of time: if the deceased passed away while his / her smartphone / tablet / laptop / computer was still logged on, you would still have access through this device to his or her online accounts. But eventually you’ll be prompted to re-enter the passwords, and when you can’t provide one, you’ll be locked out of these accounts. Therefore, I recommend you take advantage of this access while you have it, and set as many new passwords as you can, to ensure you have independent access to the accounts – at least to begin with. Maybe later on you’ll decide to close the accounts, or not to go into them, but at least you’ll have a choice.
I know you already have so much to handle after the death of a loved one, and maybe his or her digital legacy doesn’t strike you as urgent, but unfortunately, by the time you do get around to dealing with it, it’ll be too late, and invaluable, precious data will be permanently lost – in a way which cannot be restored.
Entrustet used to have a wonderful blog, and in it a “Digital Executor Toolbox” could be found. Unfortunately, when Entrusted was purchased by SecureSafe, the blog went offline, which is a pity. It used to have useful information about how to close online accounts and delete digital assets after the user has passed away. I hope it will go online again. In the meanwhile, I have compiled a list here for your convenience. A click on each link will take you to the relevant page of the online service provider. International companies (Israeli companies listed below)
“If an individual has passed away and you need access to the contents of his or her email account, in rare cases wemaybe able to provide the Gmail account content to an authorized representative of the deceased user. …. Any decision to provide the contents of a deceased user’s email will be made only after a careful review, and the application to obtain email content is a lengthy process. Before you begin, please understand that Google may be unable to provide the Gmail account content….”
Between the time I wrote this post as a draft and print-screened this page and the time I published this post, YouTube took their policy offline. Right now there isn’t an online policy regarding a deceased YouTube member’s account. I’ve sent YouTube a query about this and will update this post once I have news.
“The Microsoft Next of Kin process allows for the release of Hotmail contents, including all emails and their attachments, address book, and Messenger contact list, to the next of kin of a deceased or incapacitated account holder and/or closure of the Hotmail account, following a short authentication process. We cannot provide you with the password to the account or change the password on the account, and we cannot transfer ownership of the account to the next of kin. Account contents are released by way of a data DVD which is shipped to you.”
“To close the account of a deceased LinkedIn member you’ll need to submit a Verification of Death form. Note: This form requires an email address registered to the deceased member’s account. Without this important piece of information, we will not be able to address your request.”
This used to be MySpace’s policy, but they updated it in July 2012:
“We will only remove or preserve the profile of a deceased user at the request of the next of kin or at the request of the executor of the estate. Myspace will not allow access or update the log-in information for a profile for any circumstance… However, if you have access to the email account tied to the Myspace profile, you can retrieve the password by clicking www.myspace.com/auth/resetpassword“.
“In order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone.”
My advice is: if you have access to the Facebook account of your loved one who passed away, the first thing you should do is download a copy of it (General Account Settings > Download a copy). If someone were to notify Facebook that the account owner has passed away, Facebook will block all access to the profile and you will not be able to get in – even if you do have the password. Facebook’s policy is controversial: anyone can notify that a person has passed away, not just members of his immediate family. Hence, the spouse / child / parent might suddenly find themselves with the profile turning into a deceased person’s profile, without their request. Once a profile is “memorized”, as they call it, only friends can see it and locate it in search results see update below, and some of the content disappears while some of it remains – and you have no control over it. Very little information is required in order to report someone as gone: Report a Deceased Person’s Profile
Following John Berlin’s appeal to see the ‘Look Back’ video of his deceased son, Jesse Berlin, Facebook now allows members of a deceased user to watch his or her ‘Look Back’ video. Please note: a request to see a Look Back video of a user who passed away equals a request to memoralize the account, even if this wasn’t your intention, so please make sure you understand the consequences of your act before making this request. If you are certain you wish for his or her account to be momoralized, or if the account is already memoralized, you can make the request here. Thank youDamien McCallig for highlighting this point.
Facebook took this opportunity to also change the privacy settings of memoralized accounts: from now on, the content will remain visible as the owner defined it while he/she was still alive. Meaning: if certain content was made visible publiclicly, it will remain so. If certain content was made visible to friends of friends, it will remain so – unlike what the policy was up until now: that once an account was memoralized, all the content was visible to friends only.
A word about Facebook‘s policy of memorializing an account: Of course this is very personal, but I think and feel it is better to keep “running into” my dead brother’s profile on Facebook as if he were still alive, than to have his profile declared as a profile of a dead person. I do not wish for certain content out of his profile to disappear, as it will disappear without any of us having a say about what stays and what disappears – it is determined by Facebook’s policy only.
Ever since my brother was killed, he has received hundreds of friendship requests, and as far as I can tell, all are by people who realize he is dead. I am puzzled by this: Is it their initiative, or in response to Facebook suggesting him as a possible friend? Is it their way of showing their respect to him? Their way of expressing their sorrow over missing out the opportunity to be his friends while he was still alive? Do they expect their request of friendship to be accepted? Is there a bit of voyeurism in it – to see which content they will be granted access to as friends, that they couldn’t see before? How would they feel if “he” will suddenly approve their request, since it will be clear it was not done by him but by a family member?
Since approving a friendship request grants access to certain content which only friends can see, I feel no one has the right or authority to approve friendship requests but the deceased.
None of the Israeli companies publish their policy regarding death of a client online. I gathered the following information from each one as a service to the readers of this blog. Walla!
Walla! will grant you the password to the mailbox as soon as you follow their clear policy in this regard. Email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for a copy of their instructions in English (In a nutshell, you will need to provide both proof of death and proof of your relation to the deceased). You should contact them as soon as you can: an e-mail account that hasn’t been used in 3 months might be closed by the company. 012 Smile
Unfortunately, there is no point in contacting this company. They will only grant access to the e-mail under court order. Contact your lawyer instead. Bezeq International
You can notify Bezeq International someone has passed away either by phone: *3014 or by chat with a customer service representative. You will only need to supply the ID number and the last fourdigits of the method of payment of the deceased, and they will give you the e-mail password. You will need to provide a copy of a death certificate, oddly enough, not in order to gain access to the e-mail account, but in order to receive a refund for unused Internet services.
If you wish to keep the e-mail active, you can do so: the first 6 months for free, and from the 7th months onward by paying 9.90 NIS per month. TheMarker Cafe
You can notify TheMarker Cafe by phone 03-5133697 or e-mail email@example.com, but they will only grant access to the account under court order. 013 Netvision
You can notify Netvision by phone: *3013 or by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. As soon as you present a copy of the death certificate, ID number and last four digits of method of payment, you will be granted full access to all the services the deceased was subscribed to – including e-mail and cloud backup. This is relevant however only if they had a private account. If they had a business account, only the owner of the company can contact Netvision, or the person registered at Netvision as the contact person for the company the deceased person worked for. Tapuz
You will have to have a Hebrew speaking person next to you, as Tapuz can only be contacted by a Hebrew form in their website. They will only assist you in gaining access to the account if you have access to the e-mail address that the person who passed away registered with. If you don’t, they will assist you only if there is a legal cause for it, or under court order. Isra-Blog
Isra-Blog is part of Nana10 and can be notified about a death of a blogger by e-mail: email@example.com. They don’t have a consistent policy: in some cases, the blog will be taken offline. In other cases, a family member will be granted access to it – depending, among other factors, on the family wishes. Nana10
You can contact Nana10 by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, but access to the mailbox will only be granted under court order.
What is so frustrating about the long, complex dealings with the various Internet providers and their different policies – which includes heartache and helplessness – is that the people left behind after the death could have easily been spared all that – if only the deceased had left their usernames and passwords behind. They could have accessed their accounts without the provider ever knowing the user was dead. Several products (some of them for free) offer this exact service: keeping track of websites, user names and passwords, along with instructions of who may access what, are detailed in this post: Managing Your Digital Legacy.