Most people know where their house, shares or cash will end up when they die because it is in their will. But one thing that is often overlooked in estate planning is how your online presence will be managed in the event of your passing.
Technology has given rise to a whole new world of digital assets.
There has been a shift from people keeping photograph albums, journals and letters – physical assets that can be dealt with easily in a will – to posting and storing photographs digitally, maintaining blogs and email accounts.
Applying succession law to these intangible assets has its challenges as there is still uncertainty around the status of the digital assets as “property”.
These assets can be particularly hard to manage when you consider the average internet user has 26 different accounts and 10 different passwords.
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People should pay close attention to their various digital assets when preparing wills and give thought to what they would like to happen to their digital footprint.
It can be difficult to identify the ownership rights of digital assets as they are often stored, created and managed by a third-party.
Most social media and digital platforms’ user agreements do not allow users to own the property in their account.
Many online platforms rest in a foreign jurisdiction; meaning challenging their policies are likely to be even more stressful, expensive and time-consuming.
Fortunately, Facebook and Google allow users to nominate a legacy contact who can access their account in the event of their death.
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When developing a digital estate plan, people need to understand who owns the asset, where it’s located and how to access it.
Some practical tips for digital estate planning:
Decide what you would like to happen to your digital assets. Will they be deleted? Memorialised? Will your family have full access?
Create a list of your accounts and identify the policies of each platform regarding the death of a member. Facebook and Google allow people to nominate another person as a “legacy contact” to administer a limited, memorialised account. These legacy contacts must be appointed from your account before your passing.
If you want your loved ones to have unfettered access to your account, ensure you note down the passwords where they can access them in the event of your death. You can use a password manager such as TrueKey to manage all your passwords under a single password master key. This master password can be left with your legal representative.
Draft a memorandum of wishes that sets out how you would like your online assets dealt with. This should include nominating someone to be the executor of your “digital estate”.
A word of warning: With the exception of the legacy contact process, your loved ones may be in breach of some platforms’ terms of service by accessing your accounts after your death.
Do you know what you’ll do with your digital assets?
Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and for information purposes only. It does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. It is not financial product advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any financial decision you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from an independent licensed financial services professional.
A few weeks ago, I went to my own funeral. Or at least a simulation of my own funeral. I was sitting in an auditorium, alone except for a trim young man in a black suit, who walked up to a lectern and began speaking. “Good evening,” he said. “We are here to honor the memory of Doree Shafrir. Doree was a beloved friend, daughter, and wife. Our thoughts go out to her loved ones on this day.”
It was more than a little jarring, sitting there listening to this guy talk about me. Doree, he said, was “committed to her work, to social justice and to literature. She showed support to women she’d never even met, and gave platforms to voices of color.” He went on like this for another minute or so, talking about how I’d passed away and “left an empty place” in the hearts of my loved ones. Next, there was a video — all my tweets, scrolling on a huge screen in front of me — and it was only then that I truly started recoiling. My legacy was going to be my tweets about Justin Bieber’s fling with Bronte Blampied, my neighbors’ love of Project Runway, my excitement about wearing a dress with pockets to a wedding.
I was at LACMA, the LA County Museum of Art, for an interactive exhibit put on by an organization called the Hereafter Institute, which was started by the 34-year-old artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo. The pitch was vague: The Hereafter Institute, I was told, “evaluates a person’s digital afterlife using new technologies.” The “funeral” was the culmination of a half-hour personal tour through a series of exhibits meant to inspire reflection and conversation on our digital afterlives.
What would someone who doesn’t know me infer about who I was based solely on my online presence?
For centuries, people have been trying to figure out how to achieve immortality — or at least extend their lifespans. Today, billionaires like Larry Ellison, Peter Thiel, and Sergey Brin are spending part of their fortunes on research that they hope will allow them to extend their lifespans. Perhaps the most radical ideas are coming out of Dmitry Itskov’s 2045 Initiative, an organization that hopes to eventually be able to meld human heads with robot bodies. For the non-billionaires among us, digital immortality will have to do.
I’ve long been fascinated by the posthumous digital lives of others, but I’d never really thought about what would happen to my own self-created online presence after I’m dead — and more important, how it could be manipulated, even by people with the best of intentions. As someone who likes to maintain a modicum of control over her online presence (don’t we all?), this notion started to feel more than a little bit scary. What would someone who doesn’t know me infer about who I was based solely on my online presence? At least when I’m alive, my social media is a constantly updated, organically changing thing; once I’m dead, it’s all frozen in amber. Would that same online presence serve as a comfort to people who knew me, a kind of poignant memorial? Or, most terrifyingly of all, would no one care?
A “funeral” at the Hereafter Institute, an installation at LACMA.
I’m not proud of the fact that when I hear about a celebrity dying, I check to see what their last tweet was. I obsessively read the Last Message Received Tumblr, which posts the last communication (usually texts) that people got from exes, or family and friends who died; the ones that are the most painful to read are the mundane ones from friends who were then killed by drunk drivers.
In 2016, the human condition is marked by existential despair in thinking about being remembered for a few lackluster, dashed-off tweets and silly photos.
These transmissions can appear cruelly unremarkable, but after death, even the most ordinary dribs and drabs of communication feel poignant to their loved ones. Like the Hereafter Institute’s project, the Last Message Received is saying: You matter. You matter, and the world you lived in matters, and the people you loved — they matter too.
Still, I can’t help but think I’ll want to keep everything away from the prying eyes of people like me when someone I’m close to dies.
Aren’t we really just expressing anxieties about our own mortality when we voraciously consume the digital afterlives of others? When I think about it in this light, I’m more forgiving of my morbid, voyeuristic habit. If there is an upside to my obsession with these inadvertent social media memorials, it’s that they have made me more aware of the permanence of my online presence, which, in the moment, can seem deceptively ephemeral. In 2016, the human condition is marked by existential despair in thinking about being remembered for a few lackluster, dashed-off tweets and silly photos. What if the last thing I ever tweet is a complaint about how much Time Warner Cable sucks? And so, whether we like it or not, life now requires no small degree of constant self-examination about our own legacies, online and off.
When I arrived at the entrance of the Hereafter Institute’s exhibit, I was greeted by a young blonde woman (an actor, I later learned) in a lab coat, who began by asking me a series of questions about my online presence, including which social networks I had accounts on and which dating apps I’d used. I was left, by that simple exercise, with the uncomfortable knowledge that my digital legacy goes far beyond a bunch of photos on Instagram. It’s a LinkedIn profile where I’ll always be working at BuzzFeed, a Clue profile where my next period is always just a few weeks away, my Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify updating until the end of time. I sat there wondering if my Apple ID would exist forever and if new episodes of Who? Weekly would keep downloading well after I was gone.
Then I stood on a platform while another Hereafter Institute guide took a 3D scan of my body — a scan I would later see animated at my “funeral” — and led me to another building at the museum, where there exhibit continued. There, I saw a record player on a stand where tweets by a man named Fernando Rafael Heria Jr. scrolled on a black screen. (I later found out he had been hit by a car and killed in 2010 while riding his bike in Miami; he was 25.) “Ever wanted to kick someone in the throat?” said one tweet, from March 20, 2010. “Fernando Rafael Heria Jr. shared a link: Brian Piccolo: Thursday Night Criterium Series,” said another from March 25 of that year.
Next, I was led over to a different part of the same room, where I put on a virtual reality headset and found myself engulfed in the separate worlds of three people who had died. It was like a video game, with voiceovers by friends and family (and in one case, a reading by one of the deceased). Barcia-Colombo explained that his intention was to create a memorial to the dead that would allow people a small window into their lived experiences.
A few days after I went through the exhibit, I spoke with Barcia-Colombo by phone. “I was really interested in this sort of bizarre thing that’s happening now, where people pass away on the internet and there’s no real virtual practice put in place for what we do with this data,” he said. “I’ve had friends that have passed away, and yet people don’t really know, and they still wish them happy birthday. Or people tweet after they’ve died because they’ve set up auto-tweeting. I thought it was a really sort of interesting time in our culture, and our conversation about death is really changing.”
“At some point there’s going to be more people who’ve passed away on Facebook than there are alive people on Facebook.”
Last year, Facebook instituted a policy that allows you to designate a person to maintain your Facebook page after you die; your page lives on, but is changed to a “memorial” page. But what happens when that person dies? And so on? “At some point there’s going to be more people who’ve passed away on Facebook than there are alive people on Facebook,” Barcia-Colombo said. “What is that going to mean?”
We don’t know the answer to that question yet. But what does it mean when even the most off-the-cuff content that we produced when we were alive has the potential to become a posthumous representation of ourselves? It’s exhausting enough to maintain a digital presence while we’re alive. Now are we expected to also be mindful of how our digital selves will be perceived after death?
Today’s teenagers are enamored with pointedly ephemeral social media like Snapchat, where posts disappear quickly and (seemingly) forever, and maybe they’re onto something. Maybe the next generation is so conscious of digital legacies that they’ve decided not to create one at all. But I’m too far gone, I think, to make my social media presence disappear; I am a self-archivist by nature, and erasing everything is scarier to me than the idea that someone might piece together a contextless version of me after I die.
All of this awareness adds another complicated layer to the notion of the digital self — one that a quick perusal of my Twitter feed tells me I am definitely not ready for. We may not be sentient beings in death, but whether we like it or not, we will continue to exist long after our bodies are dead and gone.
Do you “live” online? Who doesn’t? Whether you’re online for personal or business purposes, you have a digital footprint, and this online presence has needs of its own. In 2013, McAfee conducted a survey to try and determine the value of our digital legacy and digital assets. The results of the survey showed, the on average our online footprint carried a value of approximately $35,000 (in 2013 – no doubt more now).
Those who blog know their blog has personal value inherent in the sharing of knowledge, but what of the fiscal value of this digital asset? Is there a way to calculate the value of a blog? Yes, there is. “Blog Calculator” has created a nifty algorithm which generates a hypothetical value of your blog. The calculator asks a number of questions, which once answered does it’s magic and pops out a blog’s value.
While the answer provided by this site’s algorithm may be subjective, and open to interpretation (like the value of your car or home), it serves to demonstrate your blog is a digital asset with intrinsic value. Therefore, like any other asset, you have to consider the disposition of the asset should you become incapacitated or die.
1 – Disposition of your blog
The first decision to make is whether or not you want to keep the blog up and running if you are unable to do so yourself due to illness, accident or you’ve passed. Even if you desire this portion of your digital legacy to be shuttered, you should put forward a plan for your trusted designee to follow.
2 – Your designee
Selecting someone to handle things for you is no small task. Here at Red Folder, we recommend the designee be an individual with whom you have a great deal of trust. As they will be following through with your choices concerning the disposition of the blog.
Those who blog, and there are millions of you (e.g., 75+ million using WordPress according to Yoast) know that the administrative tail to your endeavor is long. Your instructions to your designee should contain the names of any blog-partners you currently have as well as guest bloggers, contributors or other site owners.
In addition, including the administrative permissions associated with your blog, unique to your hosting service, such as access credentials, two-step authentication, challenge questions should also be memorialized.
You will also want to detail, any monetary arrangements which involve the blog, is the blog syndicated, have advertising revenue or associated with affiliate programs. And you don’t want to forget to provide access to the social media accounts associated with the blog – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, etc. These too are a part of your digital legacy.
Rarely do we think of our online presence as an “asset,” or consider who should take over our Facebook pages, personal blogs, and other virtual accounts in the event of our death. Having a Digital Estate Plan can protect against identity theft and ensure your personal information – like photographs, documents, and conversations – fall into the hands of people you can trust.
Creating this kind of plan may seem like a difficult task, but here are five steps to ensure your digital estate is covered just as completely as your physical one:
Create an inventory list of all digital assets and how to access them
For security purposes, it’s best to create two lists – one with all your account names, and another will the account passwords. This reduces the risk of an unwanted individual acquiring the document and having access to your personal information.
On this list, you will want to ensure to include account information for all social media accounts, blogs and websites, and email addresses, but also accounts that access more personal information, like online access accounts to loans, credit or debit cards, insurance accounts, or accounts that allow you to pay bills online.
Store this information in a safe place
Now that you’ve written down how to access some very important accounts and information, you’ll want to ensure it is protected from falling into the hands of someone looking to steal your identity. Store these documents somewhere password protected, or in a safety deposit box at your bank, or with someone you can trust.
Decide who will carry out your digital estate plan
Name your digital executor, or the person who will fulfill your end-of-life digital wishes, in your will. This person should be someone able to handle the sensitive information left behind, but also someone who has strong technological skills and can ensure the accounts are handled.
Choose what should happen to your digital accounts after your death
Create a list of the next steps your digital executor should take after your death. Decide if you would like your accounts to remain open, or should they be shut down.
Make sure to consider things like: What should happen to the photos on social media pages like Facebook or Flickr? Who takes control of any active websites or blogs? Do you want your Facebook page left active as a memorial?
Create a final message to share online
If you would like someone to post a final message to your friends and family after your passing, make sure to outline what that would look like. This could include a picture of you and a message to your loved ones, or a video of your life.