End-of-life planning can be an emotional process. Whether it’s writing an advance directive or choosing a burial plot, the process of getting your affairs in order before you die requires a contemplation of your own mortality and a reflection on those you’ll leave behind.
This applies to your digital life as well.
Digital Estate Planning
Because your online accounts remain active after you die, a significant portion of your Life File includes arrangements for your online activities. Digital estate planning should be a part of your overall estate planning process.
Do you want a loved one to transform your Facebook profile as a memorial page or do you want your account wiped off the Internet? Do you want your heirs to inherit your airline miles or Bitcoins or photos? What do you want your music compositions to go to?
In addition to these weighty issues, there is the business of ensuring your data and digital legacy are organized and protected. The prospect of wading through your online passwords and navigating account settings pages for your social media profiles can seem both overwhelming and tedious. But safeguarding your digital assets (see below) and designating someone to manage them once you’re gone are important parts of end-of-life planning today.
Doing so sooner rather than later will bring you peace of mind. It’s also a gift to your loved ones: it will save them from having to hunt down your phone’s passcode or Amazon password while grieving your loss.
We’ve compiled this informational guide to help you safeguard your digital legacy and ensure your information is secure and managed following your death. As with the rest of your Life File, you can take all these steps in more than one sitting.
Let’s get started.
Safeguarding your digital legacy entails four steps:
- taking inventory of your digital assets and devices;
- securing your passwords;
- making decisions about your digital assets.
- providing instructions for handling your digital assets;
Step 1: Make an Inventory of Digital Assets and Devices
The first step in safeguarding your digital legacy is taking stock of what that legacy comprises. Making an inventory of your digital assets entails listing all accounts you own in one place, along with their passwords (see Step 2).
Digital assets are any accounts, documents, information, records, and photos you can access by using a computer, tablet, smartphone, e-reader, or other electronic device.
Your digital assets may include
- financial services (checking/savings bank accounts, digital wallets, PayPal, Venmo, retirement accounts)
- cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, Ether)
- health-related services (insurance, electronic medical records)
- home-related services (mortgage, water/sewer, garbage, power, gas, internet, cable/satellite, homeowners insurance)
- email accounts (and emails stored in them)
- social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn)
- websites, blogs, hosting accounts
- photos (Flickr, Shutterstock) / videos (YouTube, Vimeo) / music you’ve made (Bandcamp, Soundcloud) / music you’ve purchased (iTunes)
- e-commerce seller accounts (Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Zazzle, CafePress)
- forums, wikis, online communities
- review sites (Yelp, TripAdvisor)
- subscriptions, including music (iTunes, Spotify, Pandora), boxes/products (Blue Apron, Dollar Shave Club), newspapers/magazines
- data storage (iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive) and any files stored there
- streaming services (Netflix, Hulu)
- loyalty/reward programs (airline miles, hotel or credit card points)
- data stored on your devices (computer hard drive, tablet/smartphone memory)
- smartphone-related accounts (Apple ID, Google account for Android)
- apps and data stored in them
As you inventorize your digital assets, you may find the list becoming much longer than you expected. That’s okay: better to capture every asset than leave your loved ones in the dark about your wishes, particularly for things with sentimental value like photo storage/sharing services.
Inventory of Devices
A grieving spouse wants to download the videos her loved one recorded on their tablet during their vacations; parents wish to retrieve a family archive of photos from their child’s smartphone. These are some of the real-life scenarios that may happen after someone’s death.
The manufacturers of your devices are unlikely to provide access information to your executor or your heirs (Apple is famously militant about this).
An important part of your digital asset inventory is, therefore, a list of all the devices you use to access your digital assets, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, e-readers, and so on.
Step 2: Securing Your Passwords
As you inventorize your digital assets and devices, add to each account its password (or passcode or passphrase).
Because many services now require two-step verification (also known as two-factor authentication), i.e. send you an email or SMS text message with a one-time password to verify it is really you who is attempting to log in to the account, it may also be a good idea to list with each asset the email account you use to manage it and the password for that email account. Because of two-step verification, it is also a good idea for your executor to have access to your phone.
As you inventorize your digital assets, consider logging into every account and changing the password. Not only is changing passwords periodically part of good digital hygiene, changing your passwords when creating your Life File will create a symbolic marker for you.
Similarly, add to each device that you list in your inventory a password, passcode, or passphrase you use to access it.
How to Generate Passwords
There are a number of ways to secure your digital assets with passwords. The method you choose may depend on the number of digital assets you own or on how simple / complicated you want to get with password management. Whichever way you decide to go, consider consulting an estate attorney to ensure the degree of privacy or security you wish to attain, or a digital security expert
Here we list three methods, in the increasing order of complexity.
- If you have a few simple digital assets: Consider generating simple passwords for each asset following the directions each service provider recommends. Then list the passwords in a handwritten list, sealed as part of your Life File, or in a simple spreadsheet on your computer (you can additionally password-protect this document) or a Google Spreadsheet (which requires an additional password to be accessed or you may choose to share it with a loved one in advance). While this may be the least secure method of securing your digital assets, it shines in its simplicity.
- If you have a greater number of assets, some of which carry balances or come with a monetary value: Consider using a password management service like LastPass (see below) to manage all your passwords and listing the password to that tool in your sealed instructions (see Step 4).
- If you have a lot of digital assets and a substantial amount stored in balances like bank accounts or copyright: Consider using Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Diceware method to generate a long master passphrase to use with your password management service or your main device. Or you may prefer to hire a cyber-security expert to manage your
Whichever method you choose, it’s good practice to use longer passwords as well as a different password for each account (and periodically change it), and to turn on two-factor authentication.
Password Management Services
An alternative to furnishing a full list of passwords in a single document is using an online password management service. A number of online vendors offer a service to store all your passwords. Not only can you keep all your passwords in one place, you only have to remember—and include in your instructions for your digital assets (see Step 4)—one master password or passphrase to access all your passwords.
LastPass and 1Password are the most popular password management tools.
- LastPass offers a free and premium ($3/month) account. While you can easily get by using the free version, the premium version offers the feature to add an emergency contact on your account who can access your passwords when you die, e.g. a designated digital heir charged with carrying out your online legacy.
- 1Password only offers a paid, $2.99/month version, and lacks the option to designate an emergency contact or digital heir.
Step 3: Making Decisions About Your Digital Assets
Your Life File should contain your wishes for what happens to your digital assets both in a will, for transferable assets, and in a separate instructions document for the rest. Before you document your instructions, you have to make decisions as to what you want done with your digital assets after your death.
For the devices you own and use to access your digital assets, the decision is as simple as for any other tangible property: Who should own what device upon your death?
Matters get a little trickier with the intangibles.
Some of your digital assets can be included in your will. These are assets that have monetary value and entail a transfer of ownership to your heirs, e.g. bank, PayPal, digital wallet balances; cryptocurrencies; copyrighted works (writing, music, visual art/graphic design, photos, videos); accumulated frequent flyer miles; websites; funds (accounts receivable) in your e-commerce accounts; etc. You may need to consult an attorney to ensure your will stipulates transfer of ownership appropriately and following your wishes.
Your other digital assets may not be transferable through your will.
Whether or not they are copyrighted, decide what should happen with any of your documents, spreadsheets, presentation slides, and so on stored online, e.g. at Dropbox or Google Drive; the same goes for data files stored in your devices, including Microsoft Office or similar documents, image files, video files, and so on.
The digital assets involving the purchase of products or services can simply be cancelled, closed, discontinued, deleted, or terminated, e.g. accounts related to your home, subscriptions, streaming, and so forth. Your fiduciary may need to pay any outstanding balances on this type of account.
Regardless of the type of asset, instructions on how to access these digital assets (see Step 4 below) will be an important part of your Life File.
Digital Assets: Google
With 1.5 billion accounts worldwide, and growing in dominance, Google ’s suite of services. Google’s reach into our digital lives is staggering: from its email service (Gmail) to calendar to data storage (Drive) to Photos, to Docs/Sheets, to Android to Google Pay—the list goes on. In addition, a number of websites allow sign-in with your Google credentials.
Since a single password can provide your executor with access to a slew of your digital assets, if you are, as is likely, a Google user, making decisions about your account is increasingly important.
On Google, you can choose what happens to your account after you die with numerous selections in the Inactive Account Manager. [screenshot] You can decide when your account will be considered inactive, who should be notified and what they can obtain (download) from your account when your account becomes inactive, and whether your account should be deleted thereafter.
Digital Assets: Social Media
The final set of decisions about your digital assets concerns social media. It is on social media that you can continue to be present in other people’s lives through your profiles, in a sort of a digital afterlife.
Few social media platforms have a specific, automated way to handle your account after you die; most require, or have the option for, someone to request account removal. None of the cloud-based social media platforms will give your fiduciary access (a login) your account, so if you want anything more than what each platform offers by way of options after you die, you have to include login credentials in your instructions.
Here are the policies (as of this writing) of the most commonly used online platforms.
Facebook turns your profile into a memorialized one if they become aware of your death, e.g. if someone lets them know you died. The platform allows you to designate a legacy contact in advance who will manage your memorialized profile. Your legacy contact must be a Facebook user and your Facebook friend.
Alternatively, you can opt to simply have your account deleted after you die.
To designate a legacy contact or opt to have your account deleted in the event of your death, adjust your Memorialization settings. Both options are in the same dialog window.
Step 1: Using the downward triangle icon at top-right, go to your Settings.
Step 2: In the first, General Settings screen, click to Edit your Memorialization Settings.
Step 3: Designate your Legacy Contact OR request deletion of your account after you die.
A Facebook-owned service, Instagram similarly offers the option to have your account memorialized or deleted after you die.
Unlike Facebook, however, you cannot make your selections in advance while you are still alive.
Step 4: Provide Instructions for Your Digital Assets
Since 2015, 47 states have adopted a version of the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which addresses access to digital assets after a person’s death (similar legislation has been considered in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania).
This legislation recognizes digital property as property that can be managed in the same way physical property can, and includes provisions for how your fiduciary (representative of your estate / executor, a conservator / guardian, agent / attorney-in-fact, or trustee) can access your digital assets.
Even if your state has adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act in some form, it’s a good idea to draft explicit instructions for handling your digital assets—and securing your digital legacy—after you die.
Without such instructions, your fiduciary may need to obtain court orders to access your digital assets. Platforms (websites) hosting your digital assets may charge for or even refuse access. And, with the law being relatively new and the digital landscape shifting seemingly by the day, an explicit statement outlining your wishes would go a long way toward safeguarding your digital legacy exactly the way you want it, rather than by statutory regulation.
Designating your fiduciary (executor or agent) as the person who can access and manage your digital assets entails making a provision in your will or power-of-attorney.
Even so, a mere power of attorney may be insufficient for your executor to get access to your digital assets. You will want to provide your executor or agent specific instructions for accessing your accounts and devices.
The instructions for handling your digital assets should not be included in your will, which is a public document, but rather be captured in a separate document that’s part of your Life File, along with your will, advance directive, and other important documents. The instructions should
- list all your devices and online accounts along with instructions how to access them (website addresses, usernames, passwords / passcodes / passphrases);
- provide specific instructions about what to do with each device and account, if not already stipulated in your will, e.g. your tablet should go to your grandchild, your Facebook profile is to be memorialized, your airline miles are to go to your sibling, your online photos are to be deleted, etc.
If you do not want some (or any) of your devices or online accounts to be accessed after you die, spell that out in your instruction letter as well and consult an attorney about making such a provision in your will.