We Really Need to Talk About Digital Death

We Really Need to Talk About Digital Death

You might have thought about what will happen to your Facebook profile or blog when you die, and maybe even toyed with the idea of passing them on after you’re gone. But what about that old OkCupid account you don’t want people snooping around in, or the Pornhub subscription you’d rather died with you?

Over the last few years a number of companies have popped up to help people manage “digital legacies.” These companies work as repositories for their customers’ usernames and passwords; when you pass away, they’ll try to make sure your loved ones get hold of your latent digital assets, like emails, social network profiles, or e-commerce accounts.

But some also offer the possibility to close down the accounts that you don’t wish to pass on to your loved ones.

“Like with a real legacy, you can decide who will receive each digital asset, or you can just mark the things you don’t want your family to access, and your legacy executor will take the steps to remove them,” Paul Golding, CEO of UK-based digital legacy company Cirrus, told me on the phone.

One of the pioneer ventures in the field, Entrustet, which was acquired in 2012 by the security corporation SecureSafe, introduced what it dubbed the “Account Incinerator” to achieve the same goal.

Its founder, Wisconsin student Jesse Davis, suggested that people who were subscribed to websites such as Ashley Madison, the dating community for those already in a relationship, might want to delete any trace of their activity there to avoid inflicting further post-mortem pain on their better halves.

Yet digital executors are still the reserve of early adopters or tech geeks. One company, Legacy Locker, claimed to have about 10,000 subscribers in 2011. Not bad, but that’s just a drop in the ocean compared to Facebook, which now has a self-reported 829 million daily usersthousands of which die every day.

For those of us who don’t leave behind some sort of digital will, what happens to our posthumous cyber-lives will largely depend on what other people decide to do with them.

Facebook’s death policy is quite clear, which makes sense: Facebook has to deal with a lot of death.

Among social networks, Facebook perhaps has the most defined “death policy,” but it also seems the most steadfast in privileging post-death persistence over after-life oblivion. When a user dies, family members can ask Facebook to remove the profile by presenting documentation such as a death certificate.  Alternatively, they will transform the profile into a memorial page for e-mourning of the lost loved one.

This feature may end up radically changing Mark Zuckerberg’s social network: the website What If estimated that, all things being equal, dead users (among memorialised and non-removed dead people’s pages) will surpass live ones by the 2060s or mid-2100s, depending on how long the site stays popular.

Twitter and LinkedIn have similar policies: they don’t provide memorialisation, but they’ll remove the profiles at the request of a friend, relative, or colleague of the deceased user. (You may resolve to keep tweeting from the grave via applications like LIVESON, but that’s another story.)

Google offers users some control over the thorny issue of digital death by dint of a feature called Inactive Manager Account. By activating it, users can decide that their account will be shut down or transferred to a trusted person after a given period of time.

Pretty much all the other systems hinge on the premise that somebody else will reach out to give dead avatars a deserved burial. That may not always be possible, for example if the dead user’s family don’t know they hold certain accounts, or aren’t tech-savvy enough to deal with them.

The accounts of dead people are therefore likely to keep existing, silent, in a digital limbo.

Facebook is only ten years old, and its persistence 50 years from now can’t be taken for granted, even if your late presence is clinging on.

Rather than major social networks, it’s likely that more specific digital venues will risk becoming virtual cemeteries in the long run, as families are probably less likely to know that their relatives are subscribed to them. And sometimes the ghosts will stick around where you least expect.

Take video games. In June, a YouTube commenter shared a moving story about accidentally stumbling on his deceased father while playing a rally game on Xbox: every time that he raced, the “ghost car” of his dad (who had established a record time), would drive alongside him.

If you consider the fact that many MMORPG games don’t delete players’ avatars even after years of inactivity, it leaves the door open for a scenario where legions of virtual personas could outlive their flesh-and-blood creators.

But while it might be tricky to make sure your digital self dies with you, there’s another thing to take into consideration: It’s unlikely that most of the websites and social media we’re talking about will survive for that long. Facebook is only ten years old, and its persistence 50 years from now can’t be taken for granted, even if your late presence is clinging on.

And that may in fact be the bigger problem. While you may worry about leaving certain traces, historians are concerned that the data we store in social networks may be destroyed in the perpetual creation/destruction cycle that characterizes the digital era. This could wind up depriving future researchers of key information to make sense of our age.

So even if you hope for your digital self to die once and for all, others may be rushing to preserve the breadcrumbs of data that said something about your digital life.

Assets online? Plan your estate for the digital age

Assets online? Plan your estate for the digital age

As we spend more of our lives online — banking, collecting credit card rewards points, playing virtual reality games, creating photo albums, emailing, tweeting — it’s increasingly important to consider how beneficiaries can access those accounts and any assets they hold, once we’re gone.

“It used to be when someone passed away, there were all these clues — a paper trail around the house about what the deceased person owned and owed,” says Karin C. Prangley, an estate attorney at Krasnow Saunders Kaplan & Beninati in Chicago. “Now there is no more paper trail. All of that is digital. It’s a big deal because it’s hard to get at that digital information.”

Ignorance can be costly. “If you can’t get into this person’s email account, if you have no idea where this person banks … the [deceased] person may have a million dollar account at Fidelity, but you just don’t know, says Prangley.

“Maybe the person had an insurance policy, maybe the person had an online store selling a specialized product, maybe there was some sort of business you as the heir don’t know about. The money goes right to the grave.”

Not having access to the deceased’s online accounts or email alerts could mean that bills normally paid online go unpaid. Since the estate is responsible for existing debt, missing those payments could cause headaches as you straighten out the problem, says Deborah L. Jacobs, author of “Estate Planning Smarts.” “If you don’t find credit card accounts quickly and bill paying is delayed and finance charges are assessed, you can most likely get the credit card companies to forgive the finance charges,” Jacobs says. “But you may have to fight them.”

The opposite situation is also a problem. Recurring bills that are on auto-pay may continue to be paid even after the product or service is no longer needed.

“We’ve seen instances where someone has been dead for years and they’re still paying for The Economist online,” says Jacobs.

Finding financial accounts

Without a list of financial accounts, finding them can be tricky, but there are steps you can take. The easiest: check the person’s wallet, pocket, desk and drawers for the receipts, Jacobs says. “Even if you’re doing almost everything online, those receipts may be in their pockets.”

To find open accounts, such as credit cards that aren’t regularly being used and generating receipts or bills, you can get a copy of the deceased person’s credit report from one or all of the three consumer credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. But you’ll need documentation, agency representatives say.

For example, all three require a copy of the death certificate and proof that you have power of attorney or are executor of the estate.

Beyond banking

In addition to banking and investment accounts, many people access their airline, hotel and other rewards programs online, says Glenn C. Williamson, CEO and founder of WebCease Inc. in Portland, Ore., which helps heirs track down those digital assets. “I personally have half a million Hyatt points, valued at $35,000 to $45,000,” Williamson says.

… Maybe there was some sort of business you as the heir don’t know about. The money goes right to the grave.
— Karin C. Prangley, Estate planning attorney

The potential dollar loss goes beyond financial accounts and rewards programs to items you may not think of immediately, Prangley says. “What’s the cost of losing a lifetime of photos? What happens to unique weapons held by a World of Warcraft master? What about wins in offshore, online poker accounts?”

North American respondents to a survey by security giant McAfee valued their digital assets at an average of $54,722 with listed assets including music downloads, photos, emails, financial and health records, career information and contacts, and hobbies and creative projects.

Even a great-grandfather may have digital assets if he’s been online, says Williamson. “We did one 91-year-old guy who didn’t even have an email address and he had hotel points,” he says. Another man in his 80s had a separate Facebook account for selling RVs — news to his family, Williamson says.

Finding assets online can be time-consuming. First, heirs have to know an account exists. Second, they have to be able to gain access to that account via usernames and passwords.

“People are grieving,” says Jacobs, the author. “This is adding an extra hardship.”

Williamson estimates it took him 25 hours to find his mother’s online accounts after she passed away, which gave him the idea for WebCease. WebCease routinely searches about 60 nonfinancial online accounts, including photography sites such as Flickr, hotel and airline rewards programs, social media sites and e-commerce sites including Amazon, PayPal, Netflix and eBay.

WebCease researchers will personalize the search and look for additional accounts when necessary, Williamson says. For instance, in the case of the RV enthusiast, they searched various campground websites to see if the deceased had a membership with valuable rewards or resale potential. “We wouldn’t typically search on those, but when my researchers make a correlation they will go further than our standard list.”

WebCease lets its clients know what it finds, and then gives them each site’s policies and information on how to transfer the digital assets and how to shut down the account, Williamson says.

Rescuing vital records

Passwords are the next hurdle. Even if you as the executor or heir have written permission from the deceased account holder to access accounts, without the proper passwords, online providers may not give you the content, says Hazel Sanchez, estate planning attorney at the Law Offices of Rhonda H. Brink in Austin, Texas.

Some online providers, if they were to find out the account holder is deceased, would simply close the account and delete all the information on it.
— Hazel Sanchez, Estate planning attorney

“Each one has different procedures,” says Sanchez. “Some online providers, if they were to find out the account holder is deceased, would simply close the account and delete all the information on it.”

Sanchez recommends that if you do have access to usernames and passwords, you print out hard copies of financial information so that even if the accounts are later deleted, you’ll have the information you need.

Technically in these cases, you could be liable for unlawful access of data, but it’s not likely an heir would be prosecuted. “They talk about liability of unauthorized access, but nobody ever enforces it,” Sanchez says. “It’s more important for the fiduciary to gain control of assets and prevent deletion of information before anything happens.”

Sanchez says a little pre-emptive action can prevent any problems related to unauthorized access. “We recommend will provisions that give the executor authority to access the deceased’s digital assets and accounts,” she says.

Shutting down fraud

Eventually, though, you’ll want to make sure you close accounts for security reasons. The identities of nearly 2.5 million people are misused every year to apply for credit, according to a 2012 study by ID Analytics.

“You don’t want mom’s profile out there,” says WebCease’s Williamson. “When you die, it’s public record. It’s so much easier to steal a deceased person’s identity.”

When you die, it’s public record. It’s so much easier to steal a deceased person’s identity.
— Glenn C. Williamson, CEO and founder of WebCease

To prevent fraud and identity theft, notify credit card companies and other lenders that the person has died, says Maxine Sweet, president of public education at Experian. “They will report the deceased status to the credit reporting companies and it will automatically become part of the file, preventing fraud,” she says. “If the deceased was receiving Social Security benefits, the Social Security Administration also should be notified and [SSA] will also report that information to us.”

Even if you’re not looking for open accounts, you still should contact the credit reporting agencies with a copy of the death certificate, so the credit file can be updated, says Clifton O’Neal, vice president of corporate communications at TransUnion.

You may also want to contact the Direct Marketing Association to have the deceased removed from marketing mailing lists, Sweet says. “Having those arrive in the mail can be painful for the relatives,” she says.

Planning your digital afterlife

You can prevent many of these hassles for your own heirs by making preparations now. A few simple measures can lessen or eliminate the need for your loved ones to become online sleuths after you’re gone.

Keep a snail mail trail

Even if you do business mostly online, elect to receive some paper statements so your heirs will find out about your accounts from mail delivery, says Jacobs, the author. “Even though I favor cutting down on the paper in our lives, this is not the place to do it,” she says.

Consolidate your accounts

Combining financial accounts or at least moving assets to a small number of providers makes them easier to keep track of, Jacobs says. “I know of a number of elderly people who have certificates of deposit at 50 different banks,” Jacobs says.

Finding the records could be sheer luck. Jacobs and her husband went to one bank her mother-in-law used to cash in one of her CDs and the bank officer told the couple she had a second CD that they hadn’t known about.

List account information

Make a list of accounts with the name of the financial institution, account number and how it’s titled and put it in a folder if you’re comfortable having that information at your house, Jacobs says.

If not, make one list of user IDs and a separate list of passwords, Sanchez suggests. Give each list to a different person and tell your executor those people’s names so the two lists can be put together when you pass away, she says.

She acknowledges that keeping the list up to date could be time-consuming, but says it’s necessary. “We think it’s very important for everybody to make a list inventory of what they have,” Sanchez says.

Name an online executor

As you make that list of user names and passwords, consider naming an online executor, who could be separate from your overall estate executor, says Prangley, the estate attorney. An online executor would identify and provide information to your family about your online accounts and digital assets and they could sell what might be useful to others, she says. Further, the online executor could delete any emails or other online communication that might hurt your family members, she says.

“Some people have separate online lives,” she says. “Your executor might delete your online flirting.”

Digital assets need monitoring, even after death

Digital assets need monitoring, even after death

“Every once in awhile, I’ll get a notification that it’s his birthday, it’s part of the settings that were used to establish the account,” said Sears, a tax manager at Buffalo accounting firm Lumsden & McCormick.

Sears knows firsthand that once a Facebook user passes on, his or her page lives on because it’s part of the company policy. Unless someone other than the deceased has login information, the company will keep a page up and running.

“Facebook puts a freeze on it; they call it memorializing,” Sears said. “Without a username and login, it’s difficult to manage after the fact.”

By after the fact, Sears means, “when it’s too late.”

Before paperless statements, she said, someone would go through the mail of a deceased person to learn of accounts that needed to be addressed. But that’s not enough in the 21st Century.

She added that to make sure that a person’s social assets — which include social media accounts, online banking, Web mail and other cloud-based applications that house music and other information — should be shared with a family member or attorney. This way, bills can continue to be paid and family photos can be accessed.

1. Create a list of usernames and passwords

Sears suggests that a first step in taking care of digital assets is to create a log of all accounts, usernames and passwords.

“It’s important to share passwords, create some sort of list with adult children or your attorney, when you set up your will,” Sears said.

Patricia Farrell, managing director at Wilmington Trust in Buffalo agrees, and said that it’s important to not include usernames and passwords in a will, in case a will ends up becoming public record. Instead, store the list in a safe place and back it up on a flash drive.

Funerals and Instagram: A look at the funeral hashtags

Why Executors Worry about…Digital Assets

Do you know what digital estate assets are?

As an estate trustee, you have to secure estate property. This can include protecting valuable digital property.

Here are some digital estate dos and don’ts for executors.

Electronic or digital information can be a digital asset. It can be stored in various electronic devices such as hard drives, computers, tablets and cellphones. Information can be stored in memory devices, networks, online or in the cloud.

As an executor, you are required to collect estate assets. You will need to include devices with digital or electronic information.

Digital assets may have value. This can include:

  • emotional (family photos, videos, music)
  • financial (business websites, domains, blogs)
  • creative (copyrights, unpublished manuscripts, musical compositions)

It may be difficult to distinguish what is valuable.

How Do Executors Get Access Get a head start with a list of a person’s usual websites, user names and passwords. This assumes the person who asked you to be executor can prepare a list.

You may need to hire a tech wizard to gain access to the deceased’s digital world.

Social media sites may be controlled by user agreements. These may dictate that a user has no property rights. The user only has a license and access to the network. The user agreement may also specify that a password is non-transferable.

The legal situation is not clear for executors. Most social media sites rely on their user agreement. These prohibit access and can deny estate trustees the right to deal with content.

Digital asset legislation, if it exists, varies by jurisdiction. Some areas have statutory rules. As yet, no uniform laws exist to create a code of conduct.

Executors have little guidance from court decisions. Few cases have ended up in court over digital property.

A clear understanding of your executor’s rights and responsibilities may not be possible.

You, as executor, may not know how to deal with digital accounts. You may not be able to identify what electronic files should be closed or maintained.

You must, however, take control of online financial information.

Online identity theft is common but difficult to detect.

Executors may not find paper bank or credit card statements. Utility accounts may be preauthorized and paid from electronic accounts.

Be aware that you may need to stop or close online bank, credit card or e-trading accounts. These personal financial resources need to be protected.

Even emails and voicemails may need to be examined. These may require access usernames and passwords.

Reward and loyalty programs for airline, shopping and membership rewards may exist. These may be non-transferable or transferable within a limited time, subject to specific conditions.

Common Questions without Answers

How should executors deal with online photos, videos and materials? Should they make copies of online materials?

Should domain registrations, website and blogs be preserved?

Will the business website need to be maintained?

What about membership and online subscription lists?

I welcome your thoughts on the best way for executors to deal with digital assets.

Death in the digital age: What to do to protect the deceased from identity theft

Death in the digital age: What to do to protect the deceased from identity theft

 According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73% of online adults use social media. But what do you do when a family member or friend on these sites passes away?
According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73% of online adults use social media. But what do you do when a family member or friend on these sites passes away?
Julie Myhre, NextAdvisor.com Editor

The UpTake: According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73 percent of online adults use social media. When a family member or friend who used social media passes away, how do you protect identities and life from identity theft?

In this Digital Age, more and more people are connecting on social media. As of May 2013, 72 percent of online adults use social networking sites, according toPew Internet and American Life Project. The unfortunate aspect of so many people using social media is that when one of our friends or family members dies, we are forced to not only deal with their identity — in terms of their personal information — but also with their digital identity.

Family members and friends question if they should take down the loved one’s social media or leave it as a memorial for people to leave comments and reflect. Technically there is no right decision to make in this difficult situation, yet family members and friends need to consider that if they leave the profile online, then they might be putting their loved one’s identity at risk. This is mostly because of constantly changing privacy rules for all of the major social media websites.

If the family members or friends do decide to delete the digital identity of their loved one, then here are some tips on how to request the removal of the deceased’s account.

Facebook:This social network’s policy is to memorialize the account of a deceased person, however it understands that some people want to delete the deceased person’s account. To memorialize an account, simply contact Facebook, provide proof of death and request for the account to be memorialized. To delete an account on Facebook, you’ll need to fill out thisonline formas well as provide proof that you’re related to the deceased. Facebook considers appropriate proof to be a death certificate, the deceased person’s birth certificate or proof of authority.

Twitter:Unlike Facebook, Twitter’s policy is to deactivate the account of the deceased. In order to complete this you’ll need to mail Twitter a packet of information, including the username of the deceased user’s Twitter account, a copy of the deceased user’s death certificate and a copy of your government-issued ID.

On top of the copies of the official documents, Twitter also requires you to mail or fax the company a signed statement that includes your first and last name, your email address, your contact information, your relationship to the deceased person, written request to deactivate the account and a description of the details that show the account belongs to the deceased — if the account has a different name than the death certificate. You can also include a link to the online obituary, however adding this is not required. Once you’ve collected all of the information, mail or fax it to:

Twitter, Inc.
c/o: Trust & Safety
1355 Market St., Suite 900
San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax : 1-415-865-5405

After you’ve mailed or faxed all of the required documentation, a representative of Twitter will contact you to complete the deactivation process.

Instagram:This social networking website requires you to send an email to support@instagram.com with the details of the person’s account. A representative from the company will then email you back and include the steps and documentation that you need to remove the account.

LinkedIn:Similar to Facebook, LinkedIn prefers to have you fill out anonline form, which asks for information such as the deceased member’s name, deceased member’s email address, the name of the company they recently worked for, your relationship to the deceased person and a link to the deceased person’s email address. Once you complete the form, a LinkedIn representative should contact you.

Pinterest:This site requires you to fill out anonline contact formand explain that you’d like to deactivate the page of a deceased person. In the “body” of the contact form, you should include a link to the deceased person’s Pinterest page or their Pinterest username. It’s also important to note that once you’re contacted by a Pinterest representative, you’ll need to provide some sort of supporting documentation, such as an obituary or copy of the death certificate.

Tumblr:Similar to Instagram, Tumblr requires you to send an email to support@tumblr.com requesting to remove the account of the deceased person. Be sure to include a link to the deceased person’s Tumblr or their Tumblr username. You’ll then work with a Tumblr representative to prove the person is deceased — with appropriate documentation — and complete the process of removing the account.

Since all of these companies haveprivacy policiesthat forbid them from giving out the account information — such as username and password — it’s best if you, as a living person, write down the usernames and passwords for your social media accounts and keep them in a safe place. This way, your family and friends won’t have to go through the stress of contacting each of the social networking websites to have your account removed because they’ll instead be able to go into the account and deactivate or remove it themselves.