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Why You Should Think About Your Digital Assets Before You Die

You have an 'incredible legacy of content' in emails, documents, downloads, posts

spinner image a woman doing digital asset planning on her laptop at home and the background shows digital files
E+ / Getty Images

You may not realize it, but you're creating a significant digital footprint as you send email, comment on social media, post a photo gallery and view your medical records electronically — and that's even if you don't have a blog, podcast or website.

But what happens to all these assets after you die? Creating a digital estate plan is becoming increasingly important, whether it's handled through your will or your estate's lawyers, services that specialize in assigning digital beneficiaries, or a complete list of your online accounts and their passwords given to a trusted family member or friend.

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Don't leave loved ones scrambling later. Thinking about this now for yourself or an aging family member will help survivors properly notify and close down accounts posthumously.

What if you had a sentimental chat with a relative over Facebook Messenger that you want archived for future generations? Maybe you have important business documents uploaded to a password-protected cloud account. How do your survivors close an Amazon account so the annual Prime membership isn't automatically charged to a credit card?

Be sure to share this

The most powerful thing you should share with a trusted family member is the personal identification number or passcode to your smartphone, GoodTrust CEO Rikard Steiber says.

Why? Once a survivor unlocks a deceased's person's phone, many email, photo, social media and other accounts likely won't require a password.

The exception? Banking apps generally do require a password every time they're accessed.

25 years or more of content

This area is so new that laws or even standard practices haven't been established for managing digital assets, says Tim Bajarin, a technology analyst and chairman of the market research company Creative Strategies in San Jose, California.

"When it comes to end-of-life planning and their estate, I believe most people don't even think about their digital footprint. But they should,” Bajarin says. “Many of us have created an incredible legacy of content over the years.” So, if you already have a lawyer, talk about assigning a trustee for this content.

Don't think of the effort as merely closing accounts. In your will, you also can bequeath content that you own, such as downloaded movies or music that you have licensed.

In part because of the coronavirus pandemic, former Google executives Steiber and Daniel Sieberg have teamed up to tackle the problem of end-of-life digital asset preparation.

Along with writing a book published last year titled Digital Legacy: Take Control of Your Digital Afterlife, they've launched a service called GoodTrust with several other tech veterans. The company securely stores and manages your digital depository of documents, social media accounts, websites and your will, delivering them to specific people you cite before or after you die.

"We've been living in a connected world for about 25 years, and so many of us have amassed a lot of online content,” Steiber says. “COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that we are never prepared for death, and managing the digital presence of a loved one should be top of mind … for both pragmatic and emotional reasons."

A free option lets you save three websites and store three key documents, write one last goodbye email, create an unofficial social media will (similar to a free spreadsheet that the British-based Digital Legacy Association has available on its website), and consult an expert for advice, Steiber and Sieberg said during a phone interview.

Their premium plan ($96 annually) offers everything in the free plan, plus other features, including the ability to save unlimited sites, store unlimited documents, create unlimited future message, and write a will, funeral directives and medical directives. A lifetime plan costs $499.

“When it comes to end-of-life planning and their estate, I believe most people don’t even think about their digital footprint.”

— Tim Bajarin, Creative Strategies, San Jose, California

Another company, New York-based Everplans, also offers secure storage for your account, password and device information; contact information for doctors, financial advisers, lawyers and other professionals you use; health care and legal documents; and even instructions on your pet's care and advice from its service providers.

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Everplans, founded in 2012, offers the first 60 days free; it costs $75 annually after that. Its founders, Abby Schneiderman and Adam Seifer, also have written a book, In Case You Get Hit by a Bus, published in late 2020.

"That first phone call to your lawyer will probably be more expensive than our service,” Steiber of GoodTrust says. While some password manager apps offer a digital beneficiary service, he considers his company's ability to curate a list of digital assets instead of giving family members passwords to all your online accounts as an advantage.

Last goodbyes are an optional service from Palo Alto, California-based GoodTrust that allows people to create an email, social post or video to share with loved ones when a client's proof of death is reported to the company or on special dates after the death, such as a wedding anniversary or birthday.

Another option, perhaps for those terminally ill, is to have GoodTrust contact you every week or month. If no response is received after three attempts, death is assumed, and someone from the company will contact the family for confirmation.

Help from Facebook

With some 2.9 billion monthly active users, Facebook, now under parent company Meta, is by far the world's biggest social network. In 2021, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults ages 50 to 64 and half of adults 65 and older said they use it, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center.

"We know the loss of a friend or family member can be devastating — and we want Facebook to be a place where people can support each other while honoring the memory of their loved ones,” Sheryl Sandberg, now Meta's chief operating officer,  wrote in a 2019 post. Her own husband David Goldberg died suddenly in 2015.

When Facebook is made aware that a person has died, its policy is to memorialize the account. Memorializing is a way for family and friends to gather and share memories after a person has died and keeps the account secure by preventing anyone from logging into it.

Only Facebook friends or family members can request a profile to be memorialized. Of course, people can choose to have their Facebook accounts deleted after they die.

Legacy contacts, inactive accounts

A few years ago, Facebook added an option of designating a legacy contact, someone who will look after a deceased's account. Legacy contacts have options to write a pinned post for the profile, perhaps to share a final message or information about a memorial service; respond to new friend requests, including old friends or family members who weren't yet on Facebook; update the profile picture and cover photo; and request the removal of the account.

Establishing a legacy contact after a loved one's death can be done using this request form. The social network also has added a Tributes section that's separate from the timeline to share stories, commemorate a birthday or let friends and family members know that you're thinking about your late friend.

"That first phone call to your lawyer will probably be more expensive than our service."

— Rikard Steiber, GoodTrust, Palo Alto, California

Google's Inactive Account Manager can notify someone if you've been inactive for a certain period of time and share the relevant account information to access services such as Gmail, Google Drive, Google Photos and YouTube. To detect inactivity, Google says it looks at several signals to understand whether you are still using your Google account, such as your last sign-ins, your recent activity in My Activity, usage of Gmail, and Android check-ins.

Apple recently launched a Digital Legacy program that lets you designate up to five trusted people as legacy contacts. Those people are granted permission after you die to fetch apps, device backups, files, messages, notes, photos or other data you have stored in the iCloud. Even after your death, certain additional information, including books, movies, music or subscriptions purchased with your Apple ID, as well as passwords and payment information, will not be made available to the legacy contact.

The people you choose will receive an access key, along with a copy of your death certificate, that they must present after you die. But the legacy contact does not need to have his or her own Apple ID or even have an Apple device. 

Apple says it will give a legacy contact access to the data only after the company has verified the information with legal documentation. Once approved, the legacy contact receives an Apple ID to use to access your account. The legacy contact has three years from the approval of the account request to download the information. At the end of those three years, the data is permanently deleted.

Here’s how to get started. On an iPhone or iPad, go to Settings | [your name] | Password & Security. Or on a Mac, go to System Preferences | Apple ID | Password & Security. Tap or click Legacy Contact, and follow the instructions to add a person. If you use Apple’s Family Sharing feature, you can choose a family member from the list. Or you can add someone else using that person’s email or phone number. 

Keep in mind that to take advantage of the Digital Legacy feature, you will need current Apple operating system software: iOS 15.2, iPadOS 15.2 and/or macOS 12.1 or later.

This story, originally published Feb. 1, 2021, has been updated to add information about Apple’s Digital Legacy program.

Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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