Inheritance can be financial, physical, personal, intimate. But only recently have we begun to think of it as digital. Here are five questions to address the idea of digital inheritance:
1. What happens on the Internet when someone dies?
We see the basics of this secondhand – Facebook pages come down or are turned into memorials. Twitter pages come down or go silent. Email addresses work the same way – if a password is left behind, relatives can set up automated messages that relay the news and set up a timeline to delete the account. This can also be done by an account holder using Google Will and other sites that will check to make sure you’re alive and delete the account after predetermined periods of inactivity. Some tech companies will allow relatives to obtain passwords to access files, or will terminate an account after someone dies. But all of this is much easier if people make accommodations for their digital assets in their will.
2. What could you inherit, or leave behind, digitally?
Anything, really. Photos, bitcoin, passwords, writing. Some people joke that if they die, they’d like their friends to clear their history – and theoretically, you could leave or receive instructions to do just that. But more seriously, banking info and things tied to offline lives will be sorted out by heirs, but digital-only things like subscriptions and social-media accounts may fall into the category of "things that need to be specifically addressed in a will."
3. Who has access to information, files and social networks?
It depends a lot on where you live. Some sites will allow anyone to report someone as deceased (they do attempt to confirm this). Some sites will give information to relatives or a spouse to handle an account. A few states have laws allowing relatives to terminate, access or control various types of accounts. In Delaware in 2014, a law was passed making digital assets part of the general estate and applying the same instructions. In most states, this should be addressed more directly in a will.
4. How can you prepare to bequeath your digital legacy?
Use sites that hold all your account information and files in one place, like Cirrus and Chronicle of Life. You can make a Google Will. You can specify who you want to receive your digital information. If you receive digital information, you hold the power of whether to delete or preserve a social-media account, take pictures offline or create a memorial.
5. What does the future hold for this kind of information?
As digital information becomes more integral to everyday life, more states will likely introduce legislation related to digital assets after death, and digital material could be absorbed more frequently into an entire estate. It makes sense that as our online lives become more intertwined with our offline lives, accommodations will be made to allow family and friends access the same way they would to boxes in the attic or tangible belongings. Similarly, people may begin making their own provisions and laying out specifics for what they want deleted or saved, and who they want in control. As algorithms become more advanced, there are some potentially strange ways to use digital information. You can currently tweet from the afterlife, and on the show Black Mirror, re-create a personality based on online history.
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