You Need to Deal With Your Digital Heritage Now

It used to be thought that when someone died, their performer followed a standard roadmap to repopulate their property: clean out the house, look at filing cabinets, and file a tax return at the end of the year. It was challenging – dealing with administration after the death of a loved one can be emotionally and financially brutal – but at least everything you dealt with was tangible . We currently live, at least in part, online, and that could mean a big headache for our families when we die: how do you deal with deceased digital accounts and property when you don’t even know what it is ?

“Twenty years ago, a contractor only had to collect mail for three months and they would have everything they needed,” says Alison Besunder , a New York-based trusts and estates attorney. “As we move into a paperless digital society, everyone has important information in their heads.”

Taking an inventory of your digital life – your online bank accounts, your social media, your email – has only recently become standard practice in real estate planning. In a folder she gives clients to help them organize, Besunder has included questions to get people to simply start defining the elements of their online life. After all, it’s easy to point out in your will that your niece will get the antique watch, but you can completely forget about your Flickr account or ancient LiveJournal.

First things first

If you have not already done so, you must draw up a will and appoint a trustee. You should also consider what happens if you are disabled or temporarily disabled and appoint someone as a proxy agent. “The power of attorney must include digital asset clauses indicating that someone will have access to your online accounts,” says Besunder. A designated trustee (either an executor in the event of your death, or a power of attorney when you are incapacitated) will handle your affairs; Having a will and power of attorney will save your family a huge headache after you leave.

For starters, Besunder recommends breaking digital real estate planning into smaller chunks, which helps you sort tasks into categories. There are four main components to your digital life:

  • your passwords
  • your online bank accounts and financial life
  • your email and social media addresses, and
  • your digital assets like photos or music.

Each of them requires its own strategy so that nothing is lost or forgotten.


You need to make sure your performer has access to your computer , phone, and your accounts . Now you can just leave a sheet of paper on the table with all your passwords, but that presents some obvious problems – passwords tend to change quite quickly, so you’ll need to keep a close eye on updating the list and posting – it’s actually not that secure. if someone untrustworthy gains access to your desk (absolutely do not do this for an office computer). At the very least, make sure someone knows or has a way to find out the code to access your host computer and your phone.

One solution is a password manager that stores your passwords for you; this allows you to designate an emergency contact who can access your vault in the event of your death or disability. Besunder alludes to the fact that all that is in the network is vulnerable to data leakage, so you can decide whether you think the document left on the mind, which is stored in a box for a file or stored in an encrypted file is a better plan than digital services … (Editor’s note: Lifehacker recommends using a password manager and changing the master password every few months.)

NB: Besunder tells me that the Apple ID is the absolute hardest thing to access after someone has died (this doesn’t surprise me since I regularly have problems getting into my own Apple account). So make sure that at least it is stored somewhere or otherwise accessible to your performer.

Your financial life

It’s very green on your part to get rid of paper bank statements, but your contractor still needs a way to find out what accounts you have and how to access them. “At a minimum ,” says Besunder, “write down by hand where you are at the bank and what the account numbers are so that a trusted person can gain access.” You should also do this for life insurance policies, stocks, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, and credit cards. While you are doing this, go through your bank and credit card statements and make a list of your recurring payments, such as utilities, tuition fees, loans, even your Netflix account and newspaper subscriptions. All of this will make it easier for your artist to close these accounts.

Email addresses and social networks

The password for your email accounts should be in your password file. For Gmail, you can set up an ” inactive account manager ” – adead person” switch so that if you do not sign in to your account for a certain period of time, your authorized person will be notified. He offers you the opportunity to include a personal message that I refused – if I contact my husband about the grave, it will be through a good old fashioned ghost.

Other email providers differ: Yahoo will not transfer your account, no matter what you do; Microsoft will send your artist a DVD with all the content; AOL will transfer ownership to another user named in the account. You will have to sort out the terms of service for your particular provider, but here’s a good overview .

When it comes to social media , your actions may depend on how valuable your online platform is. If you have 7 million Instagram followers – something that could potentially be monetized – you’ll want to leave an email stating how you want to handle that account.

Facebook and Instagram allow accounts to be immortalized ; Facebook also lets you assign an old contact to manage your immortalized page. Twitter will let your artist or family member deactivate your account, but that’s about it. Again, check out each provider’s terms of service.

Your digital assets

If you have significant intellectual property — for example , you’re a successful writer and you have an unfinished manuscript on your hard drive — you should assign a personal representative to work with those portions of your legacy. (Samuel Beckett, for example, did not want women to perform in Waiting for Godot , and his estate tried to do so.)

If you have ordinary intellectual property such as photographs or original music stored on hard drives or online services, you should still provide instructions for their owners in your letter of reference. Your digital collections like the books and music you buy from iTunes are more complicated – when you click buy, you don’t actually buy that song, you license it, and it seems like Apple won’t let you if your purchases just as if they were CDs or LPs. And think about any other virtual assets you might have: digital currencies , games, or domain names , for example.

You will be doing your executor a favor by choosing, organizing and labeling these things now – I have a bunch of old hard drives in my closet, and I’m sure they all have a million valuable photos, so my goal is to sort them and at least least mark them with what they contain. As a second line of defense, I could host them all on Dropbox to share with other family members who can access them in the event of my death.

Finally, think about your online portfolio , blog, or any other digital space that hosts your work. I have hundreds of articles and essays on the Internet, and if I closed my eyes to tomorrow, my family would not know where to find them and how to save them for posterity. I would like my kids to be able to save, say, 20-50 essays that I think they will find significant, so I will most likely save them in an online portfolio, in a dedicated folder as PDFs, or even – I know this is crazy – print them out. Maybe even all three.

Get help

Feeling overwhelmed? This is exactly what a trust and real estate attorney is for, but you need to find someone who understands digital real estate planning. A lawyer should help you take an inventory of your assets, including your digital assets, and help you leave instructions on how to access and distribute them.

Besunder offers a number of good questions to ask potential lawyers: “Find someone you are comfortable with and someone who you think will answer your questions. People tend to focus on costs, but the most important thing is to get it right and make sure you understand it. ” At the first meeting (or by email), be sure to ask the following questions:

  • Have you taken any courses related to digital assets and planning? What tips have you learned?
  • How do you apply digital heritage in your practice?
  • What questions do you ask clients to get them on the right track?
  • Have you had any difficult situations related to digital heritage? How did you deal with it?

If you need more information on how to figure things out, check out Besunder’s thoughts on this very topic. The Digital Beyond site might also be helpful, including this post on the author’s experience with LastPass . When it comes to my own estate planning, I break it down bit by bit, starting with my passwords and bank accounts. I write this on a solid and tangible sheet of paper.


Leave a Reply