We got a question for you? Have you ever wondered about what happens to your Facebook stuff when you die? What about your Dropbox, your Twitter, your Instagram, even your PayPal… What happens to these digital assets when you are gone? We wondered the same thing, that is why […]
After their son’s suicide, one Wisconsin couple was desperate for answers. They tried to log into his e-mail and Facebook accounts but failed. The grieving parents finally got a court order to access these online records, arguing that just as their son’s death gave them ownership of his tangible assets, so it also gave them rights to his digital contributions.
In courtrooms around the country, the online legacies of the departed are becoming the subject of painful battles for mourning families. People have long made plans for delivery of their possessions after they die, including family heirlooms, photograph albums, old letters and other memorabilia. Many people design this disbursement to help those left behind deal with their demise. Our possessions are part of us and traditionally are the main tangible part that remains after our death.
In the modern world, however, another echo of us exists that will outlast our physical existence: our writings and records in the digital realm. Our digital “selves” are composites of mementos such as images on Shutterfly or Flickr, books on e-readers, and our musings and correspondence on e-mail, blogs and social-media accounts. This full array of data deposits, legal experts say, is your digital legacy.
The increasing importance of our online identities adds a new layer to grief and mourning. Growing evidence suggests a person’s contributions to the cloud can be dear to mourners and, because they are easily accessible, potentially lasting and interactive, can help them cope with the loss. Yet many of us have given little thought to what will happen to our online accounts after we die. “People don’t realize that they need to make plans for these assets,” says Georgetown University lawyer Naomi Cahn. “The first step is getting people to think about this.”
Sites of Solace
Many people want to maintain their online privacy. In addition, preserving the Facebook page of a dead person could be considered a touch macabre. Yet as with your old physical photos and letters, creations by you in the digital world can be a comfort to those you leave behind. For an article now in press, information scientist Jed Brubaker of the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues interviewed 16 Facebook users about their experiences after the loss of a friend or family member. They found that all the respondents were emotionally attached to the digital trappings of the deceased. “People tend to go back to these pages on anniversaries, birthdays and holidays” as a way to keep a part of their loved one alive, says cyber anthropologist Michaelanne Dye of the University of Georgia.
Mourners may even set up new online venues such as memorial Web sites or Facebook pages. These sites also can serve as effective emotional outlets. In her doctoral dissertation at Antioch University, psychologist Jordan C. Fearon asked 68 founders of Facebook memorial groups about their experiences with grieving through social media. All but one of the founders said they would recommend creating a Facebook group to anyone who had recently experienced a loss. Like holding a wake or sitting shivah, a virtual memorial provides the bereaved with social support, a sense of connection with both the deceased and the living, and meaningful activity. “It was very beneficial to my grieving process to physically see via my computer that my friends were feeling the exact same emotion,” wrote one of the individuals Fearon surveyed. In addition, nearly 60 percent of the respondents said that online grieving was more helpful and valuable than traditional grief rituals. Memorial sites, after all, can be made accessible to a broad array of individuals and can last for as long as participants need support.
Taking Care of Business
Although you have no say in how others remember you, the existence of memorial Web sites underscores the importance of deciding what to do with your digital persona when you are no longer around. If you leave it to chance, you may have little control. The legal system has yet to establish a coherent system governing the inheritance of digital assets. Only six states have laws that allow next-of-kin access to those resources. The lack of legislation means that the ownership of your profile can revert back to the company who owns that site after your death unless you specify otherwise, Dye says. (Forthcoming legislation may soon prevent anyone except a court-appointed person or a designee of the deceased to gain access to that individual’s online information.)
Dye says she is working on inserting a clause into her will spelling out exactly what she wants done with her digital life after her death. “My online profiles are a part of who I am,” she confesses. Whether or not you adjust your will, Cahn recommends creating a locked paper document or secure database that has passwords and security questions for your e-mail, banking and other online accounts so friends and family can access or deactivate your profiles, notify e-mail correspondents of your passing, and take care of any financial concerns.
For any accounts you have on Google, you now have a more automated option. In April, Google added a free service called Inactive Account Manager (nicknamed “Google Death”) that allows you to decide what happens to your Google-operated accounts after you die.
One option is to delete these accounts. Another is to have Google allow a designated person to view them if you do not log on for a specified period, ranging from three months to a year. Before Google authorizes this transfer, however, the company will send reminders to alternative e-mail addresses and cell phones in one last attempt to get in touch. “Inactive Account Manager allows people to be proactive with their digital assets,” says Nadja Blagojevic, a manager of privacy and security at Google. “It’s important for the people you leave behind.”
You cannot similarly decide the fate of your Facebook profile. In this case, once you die, the choice lands on your friends and family. They can leave the page as is, open to friend requests, Facebook advertisements and photo tags. If someone can provide an obituary or death notice, Facebook will memorialize the page, meaning that no new friends will be added and the person’s name will not appear in news feeds. Loved ones can also request that the deceased person’s page be deleted.
In most cases, your heirs and close friends will not be in a hurry to wipe out all digital traces of you. And although you could try to instruct Google, among others, to erase you from the Internet, making the digital “you” invisible is probably impractical, and even if it were possible, doing so may deepen the pain of those you care about. It makes more sense, then, to construct a path so that those who love you can follow at least some of your online trail and gain access to the digital deposits they might need or want.
This article was originally published with the title “Managing Your Digital Afterlife” in SA Mind 24, 4, 22-23 (September 2013)
The Technology of Grief: Social Networking Sites as a Modern Death Ritual. Jordan C. Fearon. Ph.D. dissertation for Antioch University, 2011. http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Fearon%20Jordan%20Ciel.pdf?antioch1307539596
Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning. J. R. Brubaker, G. R. Hayes and P. Dourish in the Information Society, Vol. 29, No. 3, pages 152–163; May/June 2013.
CARRIE ARNOLD is a Virginia-based science writer and author of Decoding Anorexia: How Breakthroughs in Science Offer Hope for Eating Disorders (Routledge, 2012).
8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate
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If you want loved ones to remember you fondly, tackle your estate-planning tasks. Your heirs will thank you for not leaving a legal mess to sort out.
Many of us want to get going on this planning, but don’t know where to start. Here’s what you should know about eight documents that can help you get your affairs in order.
If that sounds like a lot of paperwork, don’t worry: You probably won’t need every document. And if you’re wondering where to find the documents you do need, not to worry: Just head to our partner Rocket Lawyer, where you’ll find everything you need cheap.
1. Last will and testament
A will gives you the power to decide what is in the best interests of your children and pets after you’re gone. It also can help you determine what will happen to possessions with financial or sentimental value. It typically names an executor — someone who will be in charge of following your directions. Finally, you can include any funeral provisions.
Use your will to name guardians for those under your care, including minor children and pets. Designate any assets you are leaving for their care.
If you’re married, your spouse needs a separate will, AARP says.
In the absence of a will, a probate court will name an executor — typically a spouse or grown child — for your estate. Probate proceedings are a matter of public record. So keep private information — passwords, for example — out of your will, as that information could become part of a public document.
2. Revocable living trust
A living trust is another tool for passing assets to heirs while avoiding potentially expensive and time-consuming probate court proceedings.
You name a trustee — perhaps a spouse, family member or attorney — to manage your property. Unlike a will, a trust can be used to distribute property now or after your death.
If you have substantial property or wealth, a trust can provide tax savings.
ElderLawAnswers further explains the differences between trusts and wills. Creating a trust is not a do-it-yourself project. Get an attorney’s help.
3. Beneficiary designations
When you purchase life insurance or open a retirement plan or bank account, you’re often asked to name a beneficiary, which is the person you want to inherit the proceeds when you die. These designations are powerful, and they take precedence over instructions in a will.
Keep beneficiary designation papers with your estate-planning documents. Review and update them as your life changes.
4. Durable power of attorney
This document allows you to choose someone to act on your behalf, financially and legally, in the event that you can’t make decisions.
Don’t put off this chore. You must be legally competent to assign this role to someone. Older people worried about relinquishing control sometimes put off the task until they are no longer legally competent to do it.
5. Health care power of attorney and living will
To ensure that someone can make medical decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated, establish a health care power of attorney — also called a durable health care power of attorney. This is different from the previously mentioned durable power of attorney for financial and legal affairs.
A living will lets you explain in advance of your death what types of care you do and do not want, in case you can’t communicate that in the future. It’s strictly a place to spell out your health care preferences and has no relation to a conventional will or living trust, which deals with property.
“You can use your living will to say as much or as little as you wish about the kind of health care you want to receive,” says legal site Nolo in a detailed article.
6. Provision for digital assets
Decide what to do with your digital assets, including your computer hard drive, digital photos, information stored in the cloud, and online accounts such as Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Twitter. Be sure to include a list of your passwords.
“What Happens to Your Email and Social Media After You Die?” explains how to make these decisions.
7. Letter of intent
For instructions, requests and important personal or financial information that don’t belong in your will, write a letter. Use it to convey your wishes for things you hope will be done. For example, you may have detailed instructions about how you want your funeral or memorial service to be performed.
No attorney is needed. The letter won’t carry the legal weight of a will.
8. List of important documents
Make certain your family knows where to find everything you’ve prepared. Make a list of documents, including where each is stored. Include papers for:
- Life insurance policies
- Pension or retirement accounts
- Bank accounts
- Divorce records
- Birth and adoption certificates
- Real estate deeds
- Stocks, bonds and mutual funds
Another item helpful for your heirs is a list of bills and accounts, including contact information and account numbers for each, so your representative can settle and close these accounts.
Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.
Pretty soon after, Twitter announced that they were putting their deactivation plans on hold due to the general public’s horrified response. Meanwhile, Facebook is already ahead in the death game and provide memorialised accounts of the deceased by freezing their page in time once their death has been proven by evidence such as a death certificate. Facebook users can choose a legacy contact which is a person who can access their account after they’ve died. Twitter wants to offer a similar service and aims to continue with their original plan once this service is in place.
The response to the mass deactivation is strange as in 2018 YouGov carried out a survey which discovered that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to exist after they have died, though, dead Facebook accounts will soon outnumber the living. We live in a world where letting the dead die can be stopped by the immortality of a digital presence and despite the YouGov survey results, it seems many find this fact comforting.
Digital legacy: what’s in a digital footprint?
We have an attachment to our digital footprint, perhaps it’s because it represents a better us, a more fine-tuned version of ourselves. The Digital Legacy Association deals with tackling death in an online context by making plans for your ‘digital estate’ after you have died. With a mission to help people deal with their digital legacies and digital assets after they die, The Digital Legacy Association has set up tools and advice that can be used by anyone. The association works with the NHS and hospices to provide education regarding the end of life in the digital realm. They also provide social media ‘will’ templates, options for websites and blogs after the owner’s death and how people can manage their cryptocurrencies after they have died.
My Wishes is an online service available to the public which allows people to write a will, document funeral wishes, safeguard digital legacies and leave goodbye messages for loved ones. It also offers people the opportunity to record goodbye video messages to be published at their future funerals.
Tech in an online graveyard
Many other companies are now going a step further. Forget planning for the future of your digital legacy when you can immortalise your soul in an app or online.
Replika is an ‘A.I. companion’ touted as a friend that can comfort users whenever they need someone to talk to. Using AI, the app learns more about you the more you talk to it so eventually ends up feeling like a real-life friend that you’ve met. Although the app is meant to replicate the user to become somewhat of a ‘super’ best friend, it was created after one of its founders, Eugenia Kuyda lost her best friend in a tragic accident and found it difficult to find a digital footprint to remember him by. She used thousands of his text messages and emails to create a digital version of him as a chatbot. Eventually, the founders want to app to be “a living memorial of the dead.”
Similarly, Eternime is intent on preserving the memory of someone forever by allowing people to live on for an eternity as a digital avatar. By collecting a person’s thoughts and stories, Eternime wants to build a digital copy of a person once they’ve passed away in what will eventually be a virtual library of dead people for those left behind to find comfort in.
Meminto also wants to create a virtual self that won’t die once the body and mind do through an app that people can use alone or alongside their family and close friends. The app sends questions to be answered by the user with the idea of building a ‘story’ about them over time, sort of like a quick and digital way of keeping a diary. In the end, users receive a printed ‘Meminto stories’ book which they can share with the ones closest to them and eventually be remembered by.
GoneNotGone is also available if you just cannot accept death as an end to yourself on Earth and are summed up by their slogan ‘Live on digitally.’ GoneNotGone is a website where people can upload text, photos, video and audio clips of themselves so that loved ones can remember them once they have died.
It seems that Twitter users concerned over deceased accounts needn’t worry, tech has caught up to how connected we are to our digital selves and how profitable and popular creating an immortal digital person has the potential to be. The internet is already a graveyard to many dead people who still have their comments, likes, profiles and accounts on display, perhaps it makes sense to allow people to choose to capture these memories all in one place with their family and friends having access to them forever.