Managing your internet life after you die: writing a digital will
I'm writing a will. While I’ve no plans to die just yet I want to leave instructions for what happens when I die rather than leave difficult decisions to a partner, family, friends or the default of the law.
There’s a lot of advice and guidance available to help plan and set out what you want to happen to your money, property and possessions after you’ve gone, but managing your digital estate is not as straightforward as you'd expect.
In fact its really difficult. A lot more difficult than you'd expect. Having spent a month working through this stuff to create my own digital will I can't help feeling that it needn't be this way.
Planning your digital estate
Every action and interaction we have on the internet leaves a mark. We are the sum of the digital services that we use: Tumblr and Wordpress blog posts; Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo! emails; Facebook and Twitter status updates and connections; and Amazon and Apple accounts.
Each of these organisations has a policy governing how it manages an account or profile when someone dies. There’s very little consistency between different services and the issue is compounded by local law.
To advise of a loved one’s death or to try and secure access to their account, you typically need to email, submit information via the web, or write to the company with the following information.
- detail of the deceased person
- proof of the executive authority
- a copy of the deceased’s death certificate.
Their digital content will either be archived, frozen or deleted.
Digital assets are an anomaly of modern digital living. Amazon and Apple accounts spotlight the issue. Unlike physical counterparts you almost certainly don't own electronics copies of books, music and video. They are all licensed and therefore are deleted upon death.
You have to work hard to find this information. It's in the terms and conditions of use that we all click on but rarely ever read.
There are workarounds that enable you to leave your digital assets to a friend or relative but it's a grey area.
Writing a digital will
Here’s a summary of the policies for the most common 10 email and social media services that I've worked through as I've planned my digital will.
Facebook is the most open in the way it deals with death. It will memorialise an account when you die unless you ask for it to be deleted in advance.
You’ll find the settings in Security > My Legacy Contact. Here you either nominate someone to manage a restricted version of your account or mark it to be deleted.
So-called memorialised accounts are marked with the word ‘Remembering’ next to a person’s name. Facebook claims that friends and family appreciate a digital space to gather and share memories when a person dies.
When someone dies Facebook needs to be notified with basic information including proof of death.
Twitter has no provision for estate planning but you can request an archive of your tweets at any time via your account setting. On death an executor needs to register the details of the death with Twitter in order to have the account deleted.
LinkedIn similarly has no provision for estate planning. It removes profiles upon notification of a death. An executor needs to complete an online form providing as much information as possible.
Yahoo’s terms of service state that the accounts cannot be accessed once the account order is deceased. To close an account an executor needs to contact Yahoo’s legal team.
Free accounts are deleted if they aren’t accessed for 12 months. You need to contact DropBox to close an account or request access to the account of someone that has passed away. DropBox reviews cases on an individual basis. An executor should write with details of the person deceased and proof that you have executive authority.
The search giant gives you the option either of deleting an account or nominating a so-called inactive account manager. You need to complete this form to set up Inactive Account Manager for your account and record your wishes.
Where this hasn’t been done an executor needs to register a death with Google. It will then close online accounts and in certain circumstances will provide content from a deceased user’s account.
Content belonging to the family member including all emails and their attachments, address book, and contact lists can be transferred to a DVD, and shipped to next-of-kin or family member. To request the release of content you need to email Microsoft’s Custodian of Records at email@example.com.
iTunes content will die with you because it’s licenced from Apple rather than purchased. This is a grey area. There’s lots of discussion on Apple’s customer forums suggesting that anyone wanting to bequeath their digital assets should export them to an open format.
Another way is to leave details of your Apple ID and password because Apple enables you to change the name and address on an account, effectively thereby creating a new one. Otherwise executor will need to contact local Apple customer support via the web to close an account.
The same applies to Amazon as to Apple. When you close an account Kindle purchases are deleted. You can avoid this by downloading and saving content.
Discussions on Amazon customer forums suggest sharing account information so that digital content can be accessed after death.
To close an account an executor needs to write via the web site via their own account.
Wordpress.org blogs are frozen in time when an author dies. An executor must contact the customer service team and ask for an account be deleted.
Self-hosted blogs based on Wordpress or applications will fail when domains lapse or hosting accounts are terminated. You’ll need to make plans to archive content if you want a copy to be kept after you die.
There are numerous services that safeguard account information for online services and release it to a nominated executor when you die. LegacyShield and SecureSafe are both commercial services that have formal processes for releasing usernames and passwords.
Alternatively you can do what I’m doing and include a physical copy of the information in your will.