Where Does Your Digital Life Go When You Die?

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With the speed at which technology is moving our lives, almost everyone now has some size of a digital footprint. We have email accounts, letters we’ve saved, media downloads, online banking accounts, photos we’ve collected, and the list goes on. What will happen to this data once you have passed away? This issue needs to be addressed when you set up your will, and your intent for what should happen with them should be clearly spelled out.

Digital Data Adds Unique Challenges

Passing away means all of our treasured items will be gone through by family members. Our worldly possessions are handled by others who will decide whether or not they are treasures or trash. Others will decide which items are to be handed-down, donated, or tossed away. The digital data we’ve collected will present unique challenges to these decisions.

When our grandparents passed away, there were physical items to handle such as photographs, books, and perhaps even some old vinyl records. Today, these types of belongings are all digital data. Those managing your estate could come up against some distinct problems when needing to sort through your saved treasures.

How will they find Your Data?

The first thing your family is going to have to think about is what and how much data you have out there. No longer is it going to be as simple as going through each room, every closet, and all your drawers to round up your belongings. They may have no clue as to what you have doing on your computer all these years and just how much data you have stored or hidden away.

The first place for them to check will be your computer’s hard drive, mobile device apps you’ve downloaded, and any other digital device you’ve regularly used. Hopefully, they’ll be able to determine all the actions you’ve performed by looking through this content, but it isn’t a sure thing. If you have more complex data that can’t be found on these devices, it would be much the same as having a safe deposit box but not telling anyone it exists.

How will they Access Your Data?

When your family has been able to determine exactly what all your digital data is they will then have to find a way to access it. Leaving your email password and addresses to someone you trust will allow them to change and reset passwords to almost all of your accounts. If you’ve password-protected your PC or other devices, then they are not going to be able to access them to check for any data. Some may be able to hack through your encryption codes, or even hire someone to try to, but that doesn’t always work.

Do they have Legal Ownership of Data?

If you family has been able to follow the trail you’ve left behind locating all your digital data and have found a way to access it, can they legally own it? Finding Grandma’s favorite music on a vinyl record is a tangible asset. The music on the vinyl is copyright; however, the actual record can be yours. You could do whatever you wish with this item and not face any legal challenges. Things change when we download an album from Amazon or iTunes. There is no tangible thing owned, you have a license to access that content which was made between you and who you bought it from. Technically, and perhaps legally, that license expires when you do. It’s tragic to think that all the content you’ve collected could all just disappear.

Social Media Accounts

Ever wonder what becomes of your social media accounts when you pass away. One might not consider them important enough to list in their will as they don’t have any monetary value. These accounts do; however, have great sentimental value. Laws are somewhat vague at this point about the online property, and unless you’ve shared your passwords with relatives or beneficiaries, they may be unable to inherit these accounts.

FaceBook is one online social media that is taking this matter very seriously. In the UK they are allowing executors of a will to request that an account is shut down or memorialized. Memorializing an account means friends and family who are already on the ‘friend list’ can leave posts in remembrance. The deletion or memorializing can only be completed after proof of death.  In the US, FaceBook is trying out a feature that gives users a selection to make should they pass away and how they want their account handled.  Even if a FaceBook account is deleted, there remains an archived copy of every uploaded piece of content placed on it. Relatives, even those with a grant of probate, are unable to access the archived data as it is seen as a breach of privacy.

Twitter follows much the same guidelines as FaceBook and will deactivate the account when notified with proof of death by an executor. Google is a bit different and handles each of their cases individually. They offer a variety of services that are accessed through a single account and are looked at separately when a death of a user occurs. You need to give some thought to these accounts when deciding what will happen to your data after you pass away. It is suggested they be included in the information you leave behind on how you want your wishes carried out.

How to Prepare Your Digital Data

There are ways to prepare your digital data for when you pass away. To make the transition process smoother for passing on your content after your death, you need to be more conscious of what you’re collecting. Keeping records of what you own and where you have them stored is the first thing to complete. Putting that information into your will would be incredibly helpful but probably too fixed. Your digital data will continue to grow and change as you age and you won’t want to keep having to alter your will each time this happens. You should find an alternate way of storing the information so it can be easier changed.

The challenge ahead for you is how to store this information and still keep it private while you are alive, yet accessible when you die. Experts advise appointing someone to be in control, make a list of accounts and passwords along with clear instructions on how you want each account handled.

Your digital data footprint may include more than just sentimental material. It is imperative that you make arrangements for your digital assets just as you do for your physical ones. Make it easier for your loved ones to piece together your digital legacy and make sure your wishes are fulfilled.