It is safe to say that most people live part of their lives online. Our digital lives make our day-to-day affairs more convenient and helps us feel connected in a fast-paced modern world. But what happens to our digital lives after our death? A recent study out of Oxford University states that the number of dead users on Facebook could outnumber the total number of living people on the planet in as soon as 50 years. This just takes into account one social media platform. What about all our other digital assets? Like everything else in death, it is important to know the facts and plan ahead for our digital legacies.
Digital Legacies: Preparing for Your Digital Death
What is a Digital Legacy?
A Digital Legacy is your digital information that is available after the event of your death. This can include websites, blogs, social media profiles, videos, photos, as well as any other online profiles or accounts you have created. It can also include anything you may have co-created, such as interactions through Twitter, or other social media platforms.
Digital Assets are similar, but slightly different. They are digital items you purchased, or created, and stored online, or on any of your devices. This can include websites you built (domain names), online businesses, as well as audiobooks and ebooks you have purchased. Everplans has created a list that breaks this down into more detail.
So who owns your Digital Legacy and Assets? That is a bit more complex to answer. It can be a mixture of you, your beneficiaries, and the online platforms and services you utilized. Like any other part of end-of-life preparation, you need to think carefully about your digital legacy and have an actionable plan that is documented and shared. This article will help you get started.
Why Should You Prepare for your Digital Death?
How to Plan Your Death Digitally
The first step is to make a list of all your digital assets, accounts, and profiles and then decide what you want to do with them. While you do this you should take into consideration the variety of assets. This is an important step because some of your assets may have built in terms and services for end of life. One account may also have many different types of information in it, and you may not want certain people to have access to some of that information. There can also be information about other people in these accounts, and you will have to weigh that into your plans. You should also consider what your loved ones will want after you pass away.
Many experts recommend that you include a section in your estate planning for your Digital Assets, and assign an executor, or power of attorney, to be in charge of them when you die, or become incapaticated due to injury or illness. Your online legacy and assets will be in constant flux–just think of how many times you have to renew your password after forgetting it again for the millionth time–so prepare to update this list often. A Will should not be updated often, so writing everything down, or storing it through an online application such as Everplans, will ensure that everything you have online will be taken care of the way you want it to be following your death.
4 Step Plan to Your Digital Legacy
It may seem a bit overwhelming once you start taking inventory of your entire Digital Legacy, but we recommend you break it down into four categories that are easier to deal with your:
- Online bank accounts and financial life
- Email addresses, social media, and other online profiles and non-financial accounts
- Digital assets
Each category has its own challenges, but like everything else in life (and death) some careful planning will go a long way.
It is important to ensure there is access to all your online accounts and profiles, as well as all your devices, which can include your computer, phone, tablet, and other tech devices. Since passwords change often, it is a good idea to either write these down physically, or get a password manager.
If you choose to write them down, ensure they are kept in a safe location that can be accessible after your death or become incapaticated–such as a filing cabinet, safe, or with your estate lawyer. This can pose a few potential issues with privacy by having a physical copy that could be potentially seen by others, and you will have to remember to update it regularly. Getting a password manager can solve these issues, and many of these services allow you to include a designated emergency contact.
Online Banking and Financials
Your beneficiaries will need to know how to access all of your accounts. I do all of my banking and shopping online these days through paypal, automatic bill payments, and my various credit cards–I know I am not alone in this. When it comes to planning your financials for your Digital Legacy, the way you choose to approach your planning depends from person to person. Some people will get physical copies of their statements, investments, etc. to include in their estate planning, but if this seems daunting, simply ensure the name of your financial institutions and account numbers are easily accessible offline. And don’t forget to include a list of automatic payments–Netflix and Student Loans, we’re looking at you!
Email, Social Media, and Other Online Accounts
Things get more complicated with social media platforms, email and private messages. What do you want people to see after you pass away? Some people like the idea of being able to access a dead loved one’s Facebook profile, but that presents many challenges. We already said this Digital Legacy thing can be complicated, so we pulled together a list of some of the top platforms to help you get started.
First, it is important to note that every platform has its own terms and conditions when it comes to deceased users. Remember, there may be some cases where you don’t want your accounts deactivated or memorialized. If that is the case, you may want to share your username and passwords for those accounts along with written instructions with what you want them to do with them.
If you use a platform that is not on this list you will have to do some digging in their terms of service and policies to find out more. You can search through a platform’s terms and services page and type in the word ‘Death’. If that doesn’t work, try Googling “What to do with [insert platform here] when the user dies.”
You never know how meaningful that livejournal post about teenage angst and how hard it is to apply liquid eyeliner might be for those you leave behind.
Digital Assets can be further divided into files you own, and accounts you created to access them. Where you store these files can also affect how you are able to access them. If stored on your harddrive, all you need to do is make sure you leave instructions to your next of kin on where everything is and how to access it. If you stored them on a server, or in the Cloud, it can become more difficult to access. For instance, as of writing this article there is currently no way to access your data in OneDrive after your death. Gizmo reported they are considering reviewing this if there is enough demand. Dropbox on the other hand is much easier to access, you can either just include your login information in your estate planning, or you can request access directly from Dropbox with the required documentation. If you are like me, you have essays and articles scattered far and wide over the digital landscape, and you may want to create an online portfolio of your work. You never know how meaningful that livejournal post about teenage angst and how hard it is to apply liquid eyeliner might be for those you leave behind.
You also have to consider the legalities around ownership through different platforms. For instance, iTunes (and everything in iCloud for that matter) is owned by Apple. When you purchase it you are simply leasing it for the duration of your life, and once you die it goes back to Apple. There are many examples when people thought they were bequeathing their Digital Legacy when the passed, only for their loved ones to find out there was no way to access the information due to these types of restrictions and limitations.
On a brighter note, any accounts that contain virtual currency can be bequeathed to your loved ones after your death including Paypal, credit card accounts with cash back, Airmiles, and Bitcoin.
Get Help Planning Your Digital Death
It is clear that planning your Digital Legacy and Assets can be full of 404 error messages. The best thing to do is to get help. If you don’t already have a Will, then you should get one done now–go ahead, I can wait for you until you are done–and remember to include your Digital Estate in your planning. You may need to find a lawyer who has dealt with Digital Estates before, and also consider choosing an executor who is capable of navigating the invisible digital world. You also need to remember that the laws around this will change depending on where you live, so it is good to get local experts to help you in your planning.
As we have discovered in this article, there are many legal restrictions within different platforms, but it is essential to write down what you want done with your Digital Legacy and Assets. Without explicit instructions in a will, companies assume the deceased had no intention of transferring or sharing digital information.
Hopefully this article has helped you start thinking about how to plan your Digital Legacy and Assets. Your next step is to sit down and talk to someone about it. Wondering how to have that talk? Don’t worry, we have you covered for that as well.
This article is the first in a three part series that will be focused on Digital Legacies. Read Part Two: How to Build Your Digital Legacy: The 5 Most Important Questions where we do a deeper dive into how to get started in creating your own memorial including collecting photos, writing down the most important moments in your life, sharing stories with family members, and even writing your own obituary.
We each choose our own ways to live our lives, and we each react in our own ways to dying and death. It is important to take this into consideration as you plan your digital life–and afterlife.
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