What happens to your digital life when you die? The laws haven’t kept up with the times and there aren’t clear rules for who has legal rights to your online accounts or the files you’ve stored in the cloud. Let’s talk about how to prepare for your inevitable Digital Afterlife.
Getting Your Digital Effects in Order
The first thing you need to do is to figure out what your digital assets are. If you use a password manager (and you definitely should), this will give you a convenient list of all your online accounts in one location. That’s a great place to start. But your digital assets include many other things. Here’s a list of things to consider:
- Pictures, home movies and recordings
- Digital notes, journals, documents
- Tax and other financial documents
- Financial accounts (bank, investments, retirement)
- Social media accounts
- Email accounts
You should stop to think very carefully about your legacy and family history. You probably have many things your family would treasure that you may think are trash. While all your physical possessions are probably located in known locations (house, garage, shed), you should think about any digital files you have (or might want to create) that contain family history that would be lost forever if you don’t pass them on with care.
Appointing a Digital Executor
Every one needs a will. Okay, 99.9% of us need a will. The only people that may not need a will are people that are completely broke, have no spouse and have no kids. But I’m here to tell you that even if your net worth is decidedly negative and you have no surviving family, you should still get a will to handle your digital estate.
Humans long ago figured out how to handle physical stuff without a will. But the laws around digital stuff are a mess. If you don’t put something in writing and make preparations before you go, much or all of your digital estate could be lost forever. And to be clear, I don’t mean that it will be deleted. I mean that no one will have control over it and there’s no telling what will become of it. So even if you just want all your digital stuff deleted, you need to spell this out, preferably in a legal document. And that document should be put in safe, well-known location. This article has some great info on setting up a digital estate plan.
You also need to appoint someone you trust to handle it – a “digital executor”. Note that this person may not be the same as your physical estate executor. Your digital life may contain things that require special handling.
A big part of your digital estate is locked behind passwords, so one of the key things you have to set up is a way to pass those credentials on should you become incapacitated. LastPass has some great instructions on creating a Digital Will and they even have an Emergency Access system you can use to allow access to your passwords in the event that something happens to you. You designate someone you trust (your family and/or your digital executor) and they can request access to your account when you’re not available. You set a minimum wait period, which gives you a chance to deny the request (“I’m not dead yet!”). When the timer expires, they will be granted access. You can change this list of people whenever you want.
If you use two-factor authentication (and you should), you will need to make sure that your digital executor also has unfettered access to your authentication device – usually a cell phone (or an app on that cell phone). That may also mean continuing your cell phone service after you’re dead (so they can receive your 2FA text messages, for ex). You should clearly call this out in the instructions you leave for your digital executor.
Note that safety deposit boxes are special and may not accessible to next of kin, even with a valid will. This can vary with state law, so check with your attorney. You may need to add someone ahead of time or appoint a deputy.
Share Your Plans
Finally, share all of your wishes with key people such as your designated executor, your spouse, children and/or lawyer. If there’s anything controversial, put it in writing.
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