What happens to our online presence (digital legacy) when we die?

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My wife and I are in the process of updating our wills, which we haven't touched in about 5 years. Life is more complicated now, especially since we have more kids, but it's all fairly boilerplate... who has finance and healthcare powers of attorney if you're incapacitated, who gets your assets and kids if the worst happens, yadda yadda. You can do one in an hour online, easy-peasy.

If you wanna go the extra mile though, put together a legacy drawer - a single place that contains all the important documents your family needs to know about, in a place that's easily accessible. Mine's an expanding file folder in the closet, with dividers for online accounts, passwords, tax returns, etc.

And as I put it together, I got to thinking... what happens to our online presence once we're gone? I'm not just talking about logins for department stores and the pizza place around the corner... what about those places we've contributed time and talent, where people might want to reach out to us with questions or to start a conversation? Except they don't realize we're already gone. 😬

DenverCoder9 ain't coming back stick man... RIP 😭 (xkcd)

Is anyone even asking the question?

It wasn't a question in Quicken Wills five years ago; it's not a question in Mama Bear Legal Forms now; it's not something I hear anyone talk about. But it's something to consider, isn't it?

  • Will my online presence fade into disuse, as my contributions become irrelevant?
  • Can a Power of Attorney / Executor of an estate update my online profiles?
  • Is it legal for a family member to update Facebook or pin a message in Twitter, assuming I've provided them with my passwords?
  • What happens with my blog posts, and contributions to forums and Q&A sites, especially popular ones that garner attention for a long time?

It happens now and we rarely notice it... but a century from now, the Internet could be littered with dead (in every sense) posts and articles, assuming the sites they're posted too don't disappear like Geocities did. So what do we do with our online presence?


How the big tech players are handling it

Some of the biggest (and oldest) names in tech have been thinking about this, but their solutions are all over the place. Some, like FB and Google, are more sophisticated than others.

  • Facebook lets you appoint a legacy contact, who can "memorialize" your account with a pinned message or have it permanently deleted.
  • Twitter will deactivate an account, but requires IDs and either a death certificate or Power of Attorney.
  • Google provides an inactive account manager, allowing you to specify how many months of inactivity signals that you've died, who to notify and what to give them access to, or whether you just want the data deleted.
  • Yahoo will also close an account, after you provide a death certificate and proof that you're the "personal representative or executor of the estate".

The legal system has been dealing with this too - I found references going back to the 80s dealing with email. In the last few years, most states have adopted The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA), a law for advising executors and tech companies on how to request and provide access to someone's digital life.

Hopefully it avoids headaches like this one with Yahoo. Yahoo still claims they "cannot provide passwords or allow access to the deceased's account, including account content such as email. Pursuant to the Terms (of service), neither the Yahoo account nor any of the content therein are transferable, even when the account owner is deceased." Not sure if RUFADAA trumps a company's TOS or not.


How technology is making it easier

I really think a legacy drawer like I mentioned earlier is the way to go, although RUFADAA is a step in the right direction. Give your executor access to what they'll need, with explicit instructions on what exactly you want to have happen to your accounts. Make them your legacy contact and request they memorialize your Facebook profile. Ask them to deactivate Twitter, update your status on various forums, download your photos on Flickr, etc.

If the idea of a folder in your closet seems too old school, there are some high tech solutions popping up that look very promising.

SecureSafe

SecureSafe is a digital vault for storing all kinds of data, and provides a service called data inheritance that allows authorized individuals to access your data under special conditions. Their pro plan for $1.50 /month gives you access to unlimited passwords and 2FA, and 1 GB is plenty of space to store what you need to share. If you had a ton of large documents or photos to pass on, you could upgrade to larger plans for $4 or $12. They have really well rated apps for apple and android too.

AfterVault

AfterVault is another digital vault service, allowing you to store types of data (wills, insurance docs, funeral arrangements, etc) in buckets called vaults. They've got a sophisticated process in place, which is configurable, to determine when you might have died and connect the right people with your various vaults. For $10 a month you get 100 GB of space.. more than enough for all your important docs and photos.

1Password

I use 1Password for $5 /month to share passwords between family members, which I've been completely happy with. Plus, it lends itself to the legacy drawer concept I mentioned earlier, even though it's not marketed that way.

  • They allow you to upload much more than passwords, including 1 GB of documents, ID and credit cards, and much more.
  • You can add more users for $1 /month, so even if the people on your family plan aren't the people who will handle your estate, you could create one or more vaults with the stuff you really need to share and assign access to those who need them.

So is there an easy, one-size-fits-all answer?

Not really. No matter what solution you choose, there's no easy answer right now for that fits every situation. So what should you do?

  • Think about which accounts you'd like someone to handle for you.
  • Leave a legacy drawer (paper, in the cloud, something) with a list of passwords and instructions on how to access those accounts.
  • Leave notes on what exactly you'd like them to do with those accounts, like deleting your LinkedIn account, memorializing you on Facebook, updating your bio on forums, etc.

And if you're looking for more, check out A Plan for Your Digital Legacy, written by an attorney at Nolo. It's chock full of useful advice on what a digital legacy is and how to make a plan for the various types of accounts.

Author

Grant Winney

Is there anything more satisfying than sharing knowledge? Of teaching someone and witnessing their "ah ha" moment? I usually write about tech, but no promises. I hope you find something interesting!



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