Over the last few decades an increasing amount of our lives has been moved online. With the advent of social media and cloud storage, things that were once analog or physical have become digital. In most ways, this is terrific: we can share and communicate effortlessly, creation has become simpler and more powerful, and we can represent ourselves with a few mouse clicks or taps of our finger. The days of mailing out paper resumes on fancy paper are long gone, for example—nowadays we spend our time building awesome LinkedIn profiles and portfolio web sites.
But as more and more of our lives winds up online, the question of what will happen to it all when we move on from the earthly realm begins to loom. This goes beyond asking your buddy to delete your porn stash when you die unexpectedly—your digital legacy includes just about every aspect of your life these days, from the photos you have on your phone that you never get around to naming and organizing to the social media followings you worked hard to build (and possibly monetize). Some of us put so much effort into our Facebook pages they remain powerful monuments to our lives, complete with photos, correspondence, and major events, and you might want your kids or grandkids to have access to the record of your life, the same way you have an ancestor’s photo albums or journals. There’s also the question of the stuff you paid for—from music files to digital movies to cryptocurrency. Who controls those when you’re gone?
What’s truly disturbing about our digital legacies is how impermanent they might prove to be. Once you’re no longer here to maintain it, it could be edited or altered—or simply deleted. Twitter is currently littered with the official, verified accounts of celebrities who passed away but somehow keep on posting fresh content, but you don’t have to be a celebrity to want some say in how your online presence gets used after you’re gone. Here’s what you need to think about when it comes to preserving and controlling your digital legacy after you’ve passed on to the next level.
Take an inventory
The first step to dealing with your digital legacy is to understand the scope of it. It’s so easy to add devices, accounts, and services you may very well be unaware of just how much of a digital life you’ve amassed over the years. So, first things first: Make a list of all of your digital assets (and use a note-taking app for extra meta-ness). Things you probably want to think about include:
- websites or blogs you’ve maintained
- your social media accounts
- the emails you’ve archived over the years
- photos, music files, eBooks, and videos
- cloud storage files
- games on platforms like Steam
- health records
- digital subscriptions
That’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. Think of anything someone might need or want to access when you’re no longer around to provide passwords, biometrics, or other access.
The key thing to think about is that there’s very little law or tradition surrounding your digital legacy because it’s such a new concept. Other aspects of our lives, like our finances or physical property, are governed by dense layers of law dictating what happens under a wide variety of scenarios. But your Facebook profile is a whole other matter.
First, choose someone to be your “digital executor” and discuss what that means with them. This could be the same person you’ve named to handle your will and other matters, or it could be someone specifically chosen for the task. Once you have their agreement, putting their role and responsibilities in writing is a good idea—make sure they know how to trigger the process in the event of your death (maybe they just need to contact your lawyer, or maybe you have a document in a safe place listing all of your account information).
Companies are slowly making this easier. Facebook now allows you to set up a Legacy Contact who can maintain your “memorialized account” after your passing, and both Google and Apple now allow you to set some parameters around who can take charge of your accounts after you’re gone (or incapacitated). More and more social media platforms and digital companies are going this route, but not all do, so you’ll need to do some investigating. And there are companies like Lastly that will help you secure your digital legacy for a fee. When you can designate a caretaker, great—but where you can’t you’ll need to ensure someone has the ability to get into your accounts and manage them, which means giving them access to passwords or other security. That could be as simple as keeping a spouse or trusted friend updated on your passwords, or it could involve adding provisions to a legal will. Your approach largely depends on whether you’re handing down 5,000 uncategorized photos of your cats or something more valuable.
Some things to consider are these:
- Devices. While digital legacy concerns tend to focus on cloud storage and social media, don’t forget that your devices are treasure troves of digital assets—and they’re often very secure. If you’re designating someone as your digital executor, make sure they will be able to access your phone, desktop, laptop, tablet, or any other device they might need.
- Passwords. Make sure you keep your passwords and account information up to date for your executor. If you go through the trouble of setting up a digital legacy but change your password a dozen times without updating the info, your chosen post-death representative will have a lot more trouble handling your wishes.
- Intention. Finally, as part of your discussion with your digital executor and the instructions you leave them, be very clear what you want to happen. If you don’t want your social media profiles to be perpetual memorials to your life, be clear that you want them shut down. If you want something done with your photos or unpublished novels or social media posts, put those wishes into clear language and don’t make your executor guess.
Don’t forget the financial aspect
When it comes to digital finances, things get a little more complicated.
If you own cryptocurrency, you have a private key that’s required to access it, and you’ve most likely stored that private key in a hot or cold wallet. To make sure your designated executor has access, you’ll need to ensure they have those keys. A cold wallet (which is a physical thing) stored someplace secure could be a solution, but be careful—anyone who gets their hands on your private key can pretty much do what they want with your crypto—while you’re alive or dead—and there isn’t much you can do about it.
If you have an account with places like Starbucks that automatically “reload” when your balance gets low, there’s a good chance there will be money loaded on them. Your digital executor will need your passwords for those accounts as well. There’s typically no easy way to move that money—often you have to contact the company’s customer service to start the process, and supply any documentation they require. Whether this is worth it for $13 on a Subway card is up to you. Regular “gift cards” are considered more or less the same as cash, so there’s typically no need to transfer them over.
For banking apps like Venmo, Paypal, or Chime, your executor can use your login to transfer remaining funds to your bank account, then close the account through their web site. Once the money’s back in a checking or savings account it will be handled through the usual legal processes.
One thing is for sure: We’re all going to die someday, and that means we’re going to leave behind a mountain of digital files and online accounts. Spending a little bit of time planning what happens to all of that will spare your loved ones (and your lawyers) a lot of trouble.