What is our digital estate?
Our digital estate is essentially any electronic record or file that we've created.
Before computers and the internet all of our documents were in a physical form. Photos, letters, documents - everything was printed out. Videos were on VHS tapes that you could handle, music collections were on cassette tapes, and even our friends' contact details were neatly (or maybe not so neatly!) handwritten into an address book kept next to the house phone.
Back then when a loved one passed away we could sort through their posessions relatively easily. If we needed to find a legal document, wanted to be reminisce over photos, or even just wanted to find out how to contact their friends, we could.
Thanks to modern technology that has all changed. Our lives are now stored on phones, on laptops, and even on other companies' computers that are hundreds or even thousands of miles away. And it's all securely locked away behind a strong password known only to ourselves (you have set strong passwords, haven't you?!)
We discuss further down this page what you might want to plan for, what to save, and how to ensure your loved ones can get access, but for now just consider how vast your digital estate might be:
- Social: Social media accounts, emails & online chats, photos, videos, blogs, ebooks, discussion forums, dating profiles, gaming accounts.
- Work & business: Contracts, personal or business websites, dissertations, company details (if self employed), portfolios of your work, online CVs.
- House: Mortgage documents, smart home accounts, utility bills.
- Financial: Bank accounts (especially 'online-only' accounts), credit cards, PayPal, cryptocurrencies, storecard wallets, share certificates, pensions.
- Other practical records: Contact details (address books), health insurance records, online shopping accounts.
Some of the examples above you may still have on paper as well (credit card statements for example), but anything that is stored on a computer, tablet, phone, or on the web, is part of your digital estate.
How should we prepare?
Planning what happens to your digital estate can be much like planning for what happens to any other of your possessions upon your death. It can take a bit of effort, but will save your relatives a lot of heartache at a time when they'll already be stressed and emotional.
Inheritance and expression of wish laws vary between different countries, however the guidance here should give a good broad overview of topics to consider. Do take specific legal advice if there's anything you're particularly concerned about though.
1) Decide which digital assets to plan for
The first step is to identify the assets you want to plan for. Much of what we do online we won't really care about when we're gone - our shopping accounts won't be of any use to anyone, for example.
But what we should think about is:
- Any files that your family may want to save for sentimental reasons;
- Any documents that may help them to sort out your estate;
- Any social media activity that your friends can remember you by.
Think about all your digital assets and whether you want your family to have access to each of them. Is there content that would help them through a difficult time, such as a way to contact your friends, or that will help them to settle your estate quickly & easily?
There might be other important files kept online too, such as anything related to a business you might run, or items that may even help define your legacy (that world class dissertation you were working on!).
Make a list of anything you want to plan for, using the ideas above as a guide.
2) What about ownership & inheritance?
For all the physical devices that you have, such as phones, computers, or USB sticks, the matter of ownership is usually pretty straightforward. It's you. And when you die, they (and your digital assets on them) will pass to your estate in line with inheritance laws of your country.
But for online assets it can get a bit more complicated. Ownership may depend upon:
- The laws of your country;
- The laws of the country where the website is based;
- The terms and conditions of the website when you signed up.
For any assets you've stored stored online (aka "in the cloud"), such as photos or files, if it's important that they survive after your death then it's worth researching this in depth. Apple, for example, have very strict policies that say your account is non-transferable with the rights to any content terminating upon your death. Yahoo! also won’t allow anyone, even family, access without knowing the password.
Check carefully the terms & conditions of any cloud providers you use
Many web companies don't even have formal policies, so for any company where you're not certain of your rights then make an "offline" copy of your files by downloading them to a physical storage device.
3) Set your preferences on social media sites
Whilst not all websites have policies regarding death, there are a few that do well in this area. Google, for example, allow you to nominate a "legacy contact" to take charge of your account when you die.
If you're an active user of social media then you may want your posts keeping for the benefit of friends & family. Facebook can turn your profile into a memorial if your family provide proof of death and account ownership, with Instagram (owned by Facebook) also offering something similar.
Some (although not many) social media sites even allow users to specify their wishes for what happens to their account when they die - making the process for family much easier (or you may just want everything deleted!). Take a look around the settings pages for your account and see what (if any) options are available.
For family members dealing with a death, links to the relevant help pages on some of the more popular social media sites can be found below:
Notice that not all social media sites have any published policies or help pages, and of those that do, closing the account is often the only option given.
An alternative therefore would be to leave your family a way of accessing your account as if they were you. You could either leave them your password (more on that in a bit), or to be sightly more secure you might think about the following options:
- Set up extra contact info:
- Most websites will allow you to add secondary contact details, such as a phone number or additional email address. These can be used to receive password reset instructions if needed.
- Trusted Friends:
- Facebook also offers a "Trusted Friends" feature. With this you nominate at least 3 trustworthy friends who can help gain access without the password.
If you do leave your family a way to access your accounts then you need to consider the security aspects whilst you're still alive (and long may that be the case!!). If you set up extra contact info, where will those password resets go? Above all else, would you really want your family to have access to any private messages?
There's a lot of options available and a lot to consider. But by spending some time on this now, you can save your friends & family a lot stress later on.
4) Record your assets & wishes
Once you've decided which digital assets are important and what you want to do with them, the next step is to record the details for your loved ones.
- A list of your digital assets and where they are;
- Details of how your data can be accessed (both for online accounts as well as any computers or devices);
- Any specific preferences, for example what should happen to any social media accounts.
Once completed these documents are effectively an appendix to any regular will you might make. You should treat them and store them as you would a formal will, and ensure your loved ones know where (and how) they can retrieve it.
Should you record passwords?
Whilst you might want your family to be able to access your accounts after you die, recording your passwords isn't without it's risks and practical problems:
- Security: How will you store it - can you do this securely? What is the risk of it being stolen and/or misused?
- Liability: Will you be breaching any terms & conditions? Might you open yourself to liability claims (such as by banks) in the event of your account being hacked or defrauded - even if such an event was entirely unrelated?
- Practicality: What will you do when you change a password to an account; how easy will it be to update this record? The more passwords you store, the more complicated this can become.
If you do want your family to be able to login as if they were you, you'll need to be comfortable with the risks this brings. But if this is an option for you - even if it's only for a few of your accounts - then what options are there? How can we make our passwords as secure as possible yet still accessible to our loved ones?
- For some passwords one idea could be to split them into two (or more) parts, and keep each bit in different secure locations. You'll need to consider where they are stored & who will have access to them, but splitting them up makes it much less likely that the whole password would be stolen.
- Another option could be to use a password manager. You then only need to ever store one master password to this, and your family can access everything. This solution also neatly gets around the problem of keeping your records up to date as you change passwords, since the password manager will update its records as you go.
Remember, the only truly secure password is one that's known only to yourself. Storing it elsewhere, or allowing others to work it out, will naturally make it less secure. Make sure you've given serious thought to all the risks before you do this!