Our digital footprint will live on when we’re gone. Even though we’ve got another 35 years until the singularity (or so says Raymond Kurzweil), all of us will experience a sort of afterlife through our Facebook posts, tweets, article comments, email accounts, online games, and blogs, a trail that grows longer and more complex as we rely on the web to express ourselves and interact with each other. Maybe it’s reassuring to know that some part of us will live on, but it’s also eerie. If you’ve ever seen a deceased person’s Facebook wall become a place for short, public eulogies, you’ll know what we mean. Or check out “Jackass” star Ryan Dunn’s final tweet before his death in a drunk driving accident: he posted a photo of himself out drinking.
This digital afterlife has serious implications for our reputations and our families (or whoever’s looking after our estate). None of us want to think about death, but for the sake of our friends and family members who’ll be pained every time they encounter our online identity, think ahead and leave them your login information in a safe, secure manner.
Your To-Do List to Ensure Your Digital Assets Are Safe and Easily Managed
1. Identify your digital property
When we think about devising a will, we picture houses, bank accounts, cars, and jewelry, but we need to start thinking about online accounts, too. What if you’ve invested countless hours in Second Life, which has a booming virtual economy in which some users make 6-figure salaries in real life? Or what if you’ve amassed rare items and gold in World of Warcraft, a thriving Etsy store, or a popular blog with lots of Google AdSense revenue? If you pass away without giving those accounts and their login information to someone else, you’ll lose everything. Don’t overlook your digital assets when you’re compiling your will.
2. Understand how difficult it can be for your family or estate to close your accounts
Why go through the hassle to make sure your digital accounts are in order? We’ll tell you: it’s much more difficult to delete an account when you can’t log in than when you can. Read on to see the complicated hoops that websites make family members jump through just to close an account.
In our research, we saw that many popular applications and sites, such as AOL Instant Messenger and Reddit, don’t offer any means of closing an account for a deceased person. Only a few sites, such as Facebook, have set up procedures for reporting a deceased user. These procedures aren’t simple: for example, Facebook lets you “memorialize” a profile—the effect is that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search; the Wall remains, so friends and family can leave posts in remembrance; and the person’s name doesn’t show up as a suggested friend—but only after filling out a form (that requires 9 pieces of information, including the email address(es) that may have been used to create the account (which you aren’t likely to know) and a link to an obituary.
And it’s even more difficult to delete a profile: Facebook won’t let you do it unless you can verify that you’re a family member or executor by—and we’re not making this up—uploading both proof of death and the deceased’s birth certificate or “or proof of authority under local law that you are the lawful representative of the deceased or his/her estate.” It looks like your Facebook profile is doomed to live forever if you don’t have any family, which seems to discriminate against people with troubled family situations. Twitter is a bit less strict; they don’t mandate that you be related to the deceased person.
If you have a Hotmail account, Microsoft makes family members expend a lot of effort to gain access, including a copy of the death certificate, a copy of the requesting person’s ID, and a “document that states that you are the benefactor or the executor to the deceased’s estate and/or that you have power of attorney for an incapacitated customer and/or are next of kin.” They say this process can take up to six months. Forget about moving on in the mourning process.
Bottom line: closing an account isn’t easy, and the last thing a grieving person wants to do is cut through miles of red tape just to delete an account that took less than a minute to create.
3. Use a password manager to transfer account login info
A special problem with digital property is that it often requires login information to access. While you can devise a car to someone with a chain of title, you can’t leave a WordPress blog without having the foresight to leave your username and password. (Note that WordPress doesn’t currently offer any way to claim a deceased person’s account). Most websites and online services aren’t equipped to deal with this problem: they’re designed to keep people out of accounts unless they can validate their identity.
Password management software, such as Abine’s PrivacySuite, let you transfer all your accounts and passwords in one step. PrivacySuite safely stores and encrypts all of your passwords and keeps a list of all the sites on which you have an account. All you have to do to access your entire account history is enter one master password. Give a family member or trusted person this password, and all of your accounts will be accessible in an instant. Most of these applications are free, and best of all, you’ll never need to memorize another username or password again.
A few other sites have sprung up to deal with this issue, including Legacy Locker. For $29 a year or a one-time fee of $300, you can create a “digital safety deposit box” to whom “you can assign a beneficiary, someone to whom you want to entrust your digital content for the future.”
4. Start now
It’s depressing to plan for after our own deaths, but for the sake of our friends and family members who’ll be picking up the pieces, think ahead. DeceasedAccount.com reports that “survivors are generally required to make between 50 and 60 decisions within one week of the death of an immediate family member.” Whether you’re retired or just starting out, why not make lift easier for those who care about by giving them one less decision to make? Think ahead and leave them your login information in a safe, secure manner so they don’t have to work harder to access them.
5. Decide who gets what and leave clear instructions
Treat digital assets just like real property: avoid drawn-out battles over your will by leaving clear directions. Who do you want to receive something, and what should they receive? When dealing with online accounts, assume that the person you’re directing isn’t internet-savvy. Make sure you write simple steps that any person with minimal tech experience could follow.
6. If your decedents did not manage their online assets, do not despair
The reality is that most of us don’t adequately prepare our families for our deaths. The good news: you can still close a deceased person’s accounts. The bad news: you won’t be able to close all of them, and it’ll take far longer than if you simply had their login information. DeceasedAccount provides a helpful list of online account providers and their policies in case of death.