En español | You may not realize it, but you're creating a significant digital footprint as you send email, comment on social media, post a photo gallery and view your medical records electronically — and that's even if you don't have a blog, podcast or website.
But what happens to all these assets after you die? Creating a digital estate plan is becoming increasingly important, whether it's handled through your will or your estate's lawyers, services that specialize in assigning digital beneficiaries, or a complete list of your online accounts and their passwords given to a trusted family member or friend.
Don't leave loved ones scrambling later. Thinking about this now for yourself or an aging family member will help survivors properly notify and close down accounts posthumously.
What if you had a sentimental chat with a relative over Facebook Messenger that you want archived for future generations? Maybe you have important business documents uploaded to a password-protected cloud account. How do your survivors close an Amazon account so the annual Prime membership isn't automatically charged to a credit card?
25 years or more of content
This area is so new that laws or even standard practices haven't been established for managing digital assets, says Tim Bajarin, a technology analyst and president of Creative Strategies market research San Jose, California.
"When it comes to end-of-life planning and their estate, I believe most people don't even think about their digital footprint. But they should,” he says. “Many of us have created an incredible legacy of content over the years.” So if you already have a lawyer, talk about assigning a trustee for this content.
The most powerful thing you should share with a trusted family member is the personal identification number or passcode to your smartphone, GoodTrust CEO Rikard Steiber says.
Why? Once a survivor unlocks a deceased's phone, many email, photo, social media and other accounts likely won't require a password.
The exception? Banking apps generally do require a password every time they're accessed.
Don't think of the effort as merely closing accounts. In your will, you also can bequeath content that you own, such as downloaded movies or music that you have licensed.
In part because of the coronavirus pandemic, former Google executives Daniel Sieberg and Rikard Steiber have teamed up to tackle the problem of end-of-life digital asset preparation.
Along with writing a book published last year titled Digital Legacy: Take Control of Your Digital Afterlife, they've launched a service called GoodTrust with several other tech veterans. The company securely stores and manages your digital depository of documents, social media accounts, websites and your will, delivering them to specific people you cite before or after you die.
"We've been living in a connected world for about 25 years, and so many of us have amassed a lot of online content,” Steiber says. “COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that we are never prepared for death, and managing the digital presence of a loved one should be top of mind … for both pragmatic and emotional reasons."
A free option lets you save three websites and store three key documents; write one last goodbye email, create an unofficial social media will (similar to a free spreadsheet that the British-based Digital Legacy Association has available on its website), and consult an expert for advice, Steiber and Sieberg said in a phone interview.
Their premium plan, $69 annually, offers everything in the free plan, plus the ability to save unlimited sites; store unlimited documents; create unlimited last goodbye emails; upload a last goodbye video; and write a will, funeral directives and medical directives. A VIP plan, $99 a year, includes the ability to save unlimited websites and passwords, upload multiple last goodbye videos and delete two websites.
Another company, New York-based Everplans, also offers secure storage for your account, password and device information; contact information for doctors, financial advisers, lawyers and other professionals you use; health care and legal documents; and even instructions on your pet's care as well as advice from its experts.
Everplans, founded in 2012, offers the first 60 days free; it costs $75 annually after that. Its founders, Abby Schneiderman and Adam Seifer, also have written a book, In Case You Get Hit by a Bus, published late in 2020.
"That first phone call to your lawyer will probably be more expensive than our service,” Steiber of GoodTrust says. While some password manager apps offer a digital beneficiary service, he considers his company's ability to curate a list of digital assets instead of giving family members passwords to all your online accounts an advantage.
Last goodbyes are an optional service from Palo Alto, California-based GoodTrust that allows people to create an email, social post or video to share with loved ones when a client's proof of death is reported to the company or on special dates after the death, such as a wedding anniversary or birthday.
Another option, perhaps for those terminally ill, is to have GoodTrust contact you every week or month. If no response is received after three attempts, death is assumed, and someone from the company will contact the family for confirmation.
Help from Facebook
With more than 2.74 billion monthly active users, Facebook is by far the world's biggest social network. In 2019, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults ages 50 to 64 and almost half of adults 65 and older said they use it, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
"We know the loss of a friend or family member can be devastating — and we want Facebook to be a place where people can support each other while honoring the memory of their loved ones,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, wrote in a 2019 post.
When Facebook is made aware that a person has died, its policy is to memorialize the account. Memorializing is a way for family and friends to gather and share memories after a person has died and keeps the account secure by preventing anyone from logging into it.
Only Facebook friends or family members can request a profile to be memorialized. Of course, people can choose to have their Facebook accounts deleted after they die.
Legacy contacts, inactive accounts
A few years ago, Facebook added an option of designating a legacy contact, someone who will look after a deceased's account. Legacy contacts have options to write a pinned post for the profile, perhaps to share a final message or information about a memorial service; respond to new friend requests, including old friends or family members who weren't yet on Facebook; update the profile picture and cover photo; and request the removal of the account.
Establishing a legacy contact after a loved one's death can be done using this request form. The social network also has added a Tributes section separate from the time line to share stories, commemorate a birthday, or let friends and family know that you're thinking about your friend.
Google's new Inactive Account Manager can notify someone if you've been inactive for a certain period of time and share the relevant account information to access services such as Gmail, Google Drive, Google Photos and YouTube. To detect inactivity, Google says it looks at several signals to understand whether you are still using your Google account, such as your last sign-ins, your recent activity in My Activity, usage of Gmail, and Android check-ins.
Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for more than 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out , aims to break down geek speak into street speak.