Your Ultimate Guide on Digital Death (and How to Handle It)
Man, I thought you died or something.
This is what Marvin, a long-time online buddy of mine, had to say when I logged into my favorite gaming platform after being absent for a few months. After laughing it off and catching up with him, I paused for a second – what if I had actually died?
I realized something: I hadn’t prepared for my digital death. I’d be gone forever, and no one would be able to bring closure on my social network profiles and other digital footprints because I hadn’t taken steps for that.
Even worse, my online friends wouldn’t know what happened to me, probably thinking I just quit for good and forgot about all the good times. That realization made me feel uncomfortable – not for myself, but for those who’d have to pick up where I had left off.
Being on the other side of this exchange isn’t easy. Have you ever stumbled upon the social media profile of a friend who has seemingly disappeared? There’s no farewell post, no activity on his wall, and no replies to your messages.
You’re left questioning what happened to that person – did they just move on with their life, or is it something else?
Perhaps all this makes you wonder if there’s anything you can do to prevent this unpleasant outcome when it’s your time to go. Well, there certainly is.
If you’re like me and you’ve made many good friends on the internet – or you don’t want your valuable digital assets to be lost forever after you leave this world – this guide is for you. No one likes the topic of death, but talking about it and preparing accordingly can help your loved ones in many ways you may have not thought about.
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
We See Dead People – and It’s a Problem
Although the concept of digital death is a relatively new one, its grim presence can be already be felt online.
Social media platforms are the main corner of the Internet where it’s a common sight – and even though living social media users don’t normally like thinking about it, the ghost profiles of their dead peers may end up outnumbering the active accounts within a few decades.
Facebook alone had 30 million dead users by 2012. Going by its popularity, this number is only bound to increase more rapidly in the coming years.
Once you take into account all the other social media platforms with users in the hundreds of millions, the reality of “social media graveyards” by the start of the next century – perhaps even earlier – doesn’t seem so crazy.
Yet, not many prepare for digital death. According to a survey conducted by the Digital Legacy Association, over 80% of the contestants haven’t made plans for their social media profiles and accounts in the event of their demise.
Even though digital death is recognized as an important matter more and more with each year, those who’ve made use of legacy and memorialization settings for their profiles remain a minority. Few bother with documenting their digital legacy wishes as well – when asked if they’ve made a “social media will”, almost 96% of the participants answered “no”.
Receiving a Facebook or Google Calendar reminder about a deceased friend’s birthday, or a LinkedIn notification to congratulate the work anniversary of someone who’s no longer alive happens with increasing frequency nowadays.
Sometimes, you may not even know a person has passed away, which can lead to very awkward moments and even more sorrow for grieving friends and relatives. But the problem goes deeper than just social media.
What About Digital Assets?
Digital assets and possessions can carry both sentimental and monetary value – as it turns out, they aren’t generally given much thought. Only 2.3% of the survey participants stated that they’ve made plans for their digital valuables after passing away.
If you haven’t organized your digital death in advance, it can be a massive headache for your family and friends to put all your digital accounts and possessions in order.
Accessing computers, hard drives, phones, etc. may be impossible if they don’t have the passwords or encryption keys.
Moreover, how can someone know they’re authorized to access your digital assets without your explicit agreement – even if they’re sure you’d want them to bring much-needed closure to friends, relatives, and others you’ve cared for during your life?
Digital Death: Let’s Talk About It
Digital death isn’t a “taboo” topic. Overall, not many are opposed to the idea of social media accounts reflecting someone’s passing and becoming a memorial.
A good deal of people also find comfort and peace in visiting profiles of deceased friends and relatives, whether to grieve, reminisce, or pay their last respects.
The biggest challenge is being informed and aware of the fact that you need to make preparations before it’s too late – otherwise, the opportunity of allowing your digital identity and assets to move on like you have may be lost forever.
In this guide, we’ll try to help you out with useful information on digital legacy and assets, as well as advice and instructions on how to set your digital afterlife in motion while helping out your loved ones.
We’ll start with the most common aspects of your digital identity, and what prep work you can do with them.
Digital Life and Death – Your Digital Assets After You Die
The first step towards preparing for digital death?
Starting with the basics.
If you spend a lot of time online, you probably have a wide array of digital assets – even some you’ve forgotten about. Your online banking, social media, cloud storage, cryptocurrency, purchased digital content, and email accounts are just a few examples.
When you pass away, you’re gone from the real world – but online, that’s not the case. Most of these “digital mirrors” of you will keep being active, as if nothing happened.
In order for them to be kept up to date (or deactivated), you need to know how much you’re in control of them – and you have to understand how they handle your accounts in the event of your death.
This is easier said than done. The main issue here is that there’s no universal policy, and online platforms handle the death of an account owner in different ways.
Plus, since it’s a rather grim subject, the procedures rarely stand out – you’ll have to dig deep into the terms of service to get your answers. Sometimes, your friends and family may even have to contact support after you’re gone to provide proof and/or request that your account be deactivated.
There’s more: in most cases, the account owner doesn’t actually own anything. Terms of service and subscriber agreements will gladly tell you (in their intentionally warped and confusing language) that your social network or music streaming service owns all your content.
Even if you wrote your post, uploaded your photo, or bought your songs, they still might not belong to you after you die. Very few people like this fact, and even fewer know about it, but that’s the way it is – you agreed to these terms, after all.
Now imagine you have accounts on Google, Facebook, and Twitter. These are three of the most popular online social platforms, and each of them has its own approach.
What Happens to Your Social Media Accounts After You Die?
Google is among the best-prepared online platforms when it comes to account inactivity – whether by choice or due to more unfortunate circumstances.
Its Inactive Account Manager page allows you to choose what happens to your account and who can have access if it’s not used anymore.
First, you’ll need to set a period after which Google considers you an inactive user if you haven’t logged in.
Then, you can choose up to 10 executors of your account – in other words, those who will be notified once your account is flagged as inactive. You can pre-write an email to them, where you can say your farewells and state what you want to be done with your account.
You can also select what you want to share with the executors. Any of them can have full, limited, or zero access to your Google account, from your emails and chats to other Google services – the choice is yours.
If you’d rather have your account deleted after it’s been designated as inactive, you have that option as well.
Your Facebook account can either be memorialized or permanently deleted after you pass away.
A memorialized Facebook profile keeps all of the content (photos, posts, etc.), but won’t appear in places like friend suggestions or ads. Birthday notifications are deactivated, and the word “Remembering” will accompany the person’s name.
If you’ve assigned a legacy contact to your account, that person can write a post that will stay at the of top your profile at all times. Other changes can be made, including updating profile photos and – depending on your privacy settings – sharing memories on your wall.
Unlike Google, your legacy contact can never have access to your account, as account sharing is prohibited by Facebook.
A Facebook account is memorialized after a valid request from a verified relative of the deceased person. It can also be deleted.
Facebook pages, on the other hand, whose only owner has died, will also be removed after contacting support.
Twitter doesn’t give you the option of planning for your profile after death. Neither does it have memorialized accounts – but your relatives can still sort things out.
If the platform is notified of a Twitter user’s passing, it allows “a person authorized to act on behalf of the estate, or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased” to request the deactivation of the account in question.
A lot of proof is required – an ID copy, information about the deceased person, and a death certificate. While it can be emotionally overwhelming, it’s normal for such a situation and a necessary measure to prevent abuse.
Twitter can also deactivate an account if the owner has become incapacitated. In such cases, copies of the account holder’s ID and a valid Power of Attorney are also needed. Twitter claims that any sensitive information that’s required for proof is confidential and will be deleted after it’s been reviewed.
As you see, the biggest of social media giants can handle deceased people’s accounts in completely different ways. Here’s how some other major platforms approach it:
- Instagram may be owned by Facebook, but your legacy contact’s reach doesn’t extend to the photo-sharing app.
With that said, Instagram accounts can be memorialized by contacting support – you’ll need to provide proof of death, birth and death certificates, as well as proof that you’re the lawful representative of the deceased person.
The account can also be removed.
- LinkedIn has a simple contact form for requesting the removal of a deceased member’s profile.
In the future, there may be a “legacy contact” feature similar to Facebook, as well as account memorialization.
Bear in mind you’ll need to provide some information about the deceased person in the form, such as their name, profile, and your relationship to them – take a moment if you need to.
- iTunes doesn’t say much about how accounts of deceased members are handled, but it does state that the license cannot be transferred. In other words, iTunes “possessions” are merely “rented” by users, and cannot be passed on to surviving relatives.
Account sharing is a violation of iTunes’ terms of service, so technically a deceased person’s music library – no matter its monetary or sentimental value – is lost after their death.
- PayPal accounts of deceased users can be closed by relatives and authorized persons by contacting support. Executors need to provide copies of their photo ID and the will (or other legal documentation) containing information about them.
Proof of the original account owner’s passing (death certificate) is also required. If everything is approved, the account in question will be closed and the funds transferred.
- Cryptocurrency wallets typically vary depending on which one you’re using. However, most of them require some sort of private authentication – and it’s on you to ensure they can be accessed with the necessary keys and passwords after you’re gone.
One way to do that is by including these credentials in your will. You can also get help from an outside service, or set your wallet to allow shared access – like Bitcoin’s multisignature option, for example.
- Dropbox files of deceased users can be accessed via the dedicated Dropbox folder on their computer. If that’s not an option, you’ll have to contact Dropbox for direct assistance.
Prepare to provide proof that the person in question is dead and you are legally allowed to access their files, as well as other general information (names, addresses, your ID, and court orders).
- Steam treats every request related to a deceased user as unique, and strongly encourages contacting support to resolve the situation.
With that said, even if you’re granted access to your loved one’s account, the account names used for logging in are almost never changed.
If entering the login info turns into a painful reminder, you can use the Family Sharing feature to set up access to your loved one’s game library from other accounts.
- Snapchat and Tumblr will delete a deceased user’s account, provided the request is made by a verified family member. A death certificate may be required as proof.
- Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, and many others have more traditional steps in place. A deceased person’s account on these platforms can be deleted once it’s proven that the request is valid.
Why Planning for Digital Death is Difficult
By now, you might be thinking that it’s a huge challenge – even a little intimidating – to get properly informed on the various online platforms and their policies regarding deceased members.
And you would be right.
Besides the emotionally difficult process of planning for your death, this task is extremely time-consuming and every step requires something different.
But ask yourself this – would it be that hard if you only had one social media account? And would planning for your digital demise be such an issue if you knew more about it and kept a more organized list of digital assets?
Dealing with wildly different policies certainly adds a lot of work, but there are two other, crucial reasons why putting your digital possessions in order often turns into a headache:
- Legislation on digital death is still in its infancy.
Three decades ago, there was no such thing as planning for your digital death – but technology moves fast, and legislation often can’t keep up with it.
Taking a look at the US, over 30 states have yet to introduce any legislation on digital estate planning or digital assets.
It’s the same for many other countries around the world. The lack of established laws means companies are free to operate under whatever rules they choose.
While a lot of progress has been made in the past decade, digital death is still a new topic that’s relatively unheard of, and the overall lack of legislation is a major reason for that.
- You have a ton of digital assets, and that’s okay.
Today, it’s the norm to own and regularly use at least three devices – a computer, a tablet, and a smartphone – and each of them is likely to store a big part of your real-life experiences.
Whether it’s photos, videos, documents, games, or all types of accounts, these fragments of your life are kept in your hard drives or online. And when there are digital possessions, there are passwords. How many of those have you written down, and how many have you forgotten by now?
If you haven’t kept a tidy inventory, you can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of effort you’ll need to put once you decide to make some preparations.
It may seem like a lot, because it is a lot – and it’s a big reason why many give up before even starting.
While planning for your digital death can be uncomfortable and tedious, only you can bring the order you and your loved ones deserve – you can get some assistance, but no one else can truly do it for you.
Don’t be discouraged! Even though it can be very difficult at times, getting your digital possessions in order and preserving your memory for your friends and family can be easily done with a solid plan and the right mindset.
Take a deep breath and focus – you’re taking responsibility for your digital afterlife, and it feels good.
Planning Your Digital Afterlife
Every good plan has a clear purpose. There are four main aspects to preparing for digital death:
1. Dealing with your digital legacy now, so it’s easier later.
Bringing order to your various digital assets and making sure your chosen friends and/or relatives have the means to access what you consider important to them is the biggest motivator behind planning for your digital death.
If you have a sizeable collection of online possessions with high monetary or sentimental value, you probably want it to be available to the closest people in your life.
Keeping an organized, up-to-date list of your digital legacy preserves the digital “you”. It also makes it easier for your loved ones to carry an immortal reminder of you with them.
2. Taking control of what happens to your digital possessions after death.
In many cases, a person’s digital legacy goes out of reach when they pass away.
Sometimes, it may be a conscious decision on your part to keep your digital valuables away from everyone. But usually, this is an unfortunate outcome for all sides due to lack of preparation.
If you don’t want your digital footprint to be lost forever, you need to take control of it while you still can. What happens to it is your choice – and if you put in the effort, you’ll rest easy knowing that you’ve given clear instructions on how you wish your online possessions to be handled.
3. Helping your family.
Losing a family member is always a traumatic and painful experience. It can be made even more stressful if there’s a bunch of devices and online data to sort through without clear guidance.
Figuring out where your accounts and media are located and how to access them, all during an intense grieving process, can be a huge burden for your family. Planning your digital afterlife is as much about your loved ones as it is about you.
Taking the steps towards organizing the digital part of your life and providing guidance to those you hold closest to your heart in a moment of weakness means a lot and saves them a lot of trouble when they really need it.
4. Helping your business partners.
If the relationship between work and the digital world is significant in your life, you have the responsibility of preparing for the worst. You need to make sure your associates can easily access whatever documents you deem important in regards to business.
Between the underdeveloped legislation on digital death and the ever-changing legal landscape with all its different approaches, you’ll probably need professional help.
Employing the services of a specialist in this field and preparing adequately for digital death with a professional setting in mind is a huge benefit – both for your peace of mind and that of your business partners.
Preparing for Your Digital Death
Each of the four purposes outlined above is crucial for a thought-out, comprehensive plan. Depending on your situation, one may take priority over the others – every person is different.
Once you know these core aspects of digital death planning, you have a better idea of what you need to address and how to present it in an easy, understandable way. With that in mind, here are the steps you need to take in order to prepare for your digital death.
1. Identify and Arrange Your Digital Assets
The first step in your digital afterlife preparations is also the biggest and most important one.
If you prefer order and you’re an organized person, it won’t be as difficult. But if your digital assets are all over the place, identifying and collecting them can prove to be a massive undertaking. Don’t panic – you’ll be changing that very soon.
Make an Inventory
This includes online banking accounts, passwords, social media, digital devices, documents, and everything else you consider important. Don’t worry about any details just yet – this is just an outline of your valuable digital possessions.
It’s recommended that you do this the old-fashioned way – with a pen and paper. Unless you’re absolutely sure your device is protected, it’s better not to take any risks. You can read more on that further below, where we’ll talk about security.
Don’t want to keep everything together? Feel free to make separate lists for business-related items, media, and social platforms.
Remember – if you have a lot of digital assets, the list will be long, whether you prepare one big inventory or break it down into several categories. Doing the latter can be very beneficial later on, when you’re figuring out who will have access to your various types of data.
Once you have a rough idea of what you’ll need to prepare, spend some time getting familiar with digital legacy policies on major social media platforms. You don’t need to know how every single one works – just the ones that are relevant to you.
You already got an idea how the most popular social networks handle deceased users’ accounts earlier in the guide. At this point, it’s worthwhile to dig a bit deeper and see if there’s anything you can do yourself, instead of just assigning legacy contacts or account executors.
For example, did you know you can download a copy of your Facebook data, completely free of charge? Simply go to your settings and click on the information box at the top:
That way, it’s easy to pass on photos, videos, and other memories to those you wish to have them.
You can also download an archive of your Twitter posts and make a backup of your Instagram content by using third-party software like Instaport.
Provide Detailed Information
Now it’s time to go back to your inventory. Expand on it by making a list of usernames and passwords for the various accounts you’ve included.
If you’re having trouble remembering all your account details, use the password recovery feature on the websites in question.
And if you’ve forgotten everything – even your recovery email address or secret questions/answers – think about how important that account is to you, and contact support to resolve the issue if you really need this done.
Reminder: you’ll most likely need to provide proof that you’re the account holder.
Make It Official
Last but not least, write a will, and set up a power of attorney if needed. This puts your wishes in writing and presents clear instructions on how you want your online identity to be handled.
Social media wills are gaining traction as a valuable legal document, because they fulfill the same purpose as a traditional will but for your online presence.
Once you know your social media platforms and their policies on digital legacy, it’s easy to write a social media will. You can find many free templates online, and writing one takes just a few minutes.
DeadSocial has a free, simple template of a social media will that you can use. For a more traditional will, DoYourOwnWill offers a great template that takes no longer than 20 minutes to fill out after you complete a short questionnaire.
IMPORTANT: Don’t forget to sign your will! Depending on your country’s legal requirements, you may also need an additional signature by witnesses. As a rule of thumb, print out your will if you’ve written it online, sign it, and find a safe place to keep it.
If you’re uncertain about your knowledge on wills, social media, and how to handle your digital legacy, it’s a good idea to consult with a legal professional for more clarity on your situation.
2. Secure and Authorize
After you’ve done the bulk of the prep work, you’ll need to address four important questions:
- Who will receive your digital assets?
- How will they access them?
- What will your instructions look like?
- Where will you keep the instructions?
In other words, you’ll need to choose the family members and friends that you’ll trust to be in charge of your various data – such as your Facebook legacy contact, Google account executors, and others. You’ll have to provide them with the necessary knowledge or data.
You may also want to give your trustees the option of direct access. This adds another layer of complexity, as you’ll be dealing with dozens of passwords – sometimes even encryption and two-factor authentication.
Accessibility is just one of the issues here. The other one is security. Unless you’re writing everything down, you’ll be copying and pasting a lot of sensitive data back and forth – and if your computer is infected with a keylogging virus or similar malware, all the names and passwords you’re moving around can be easily stolen.
So how do you make sure you can complete this process safely? Here are the most important steps:
Make sure your PC is clean.
Run virus scans, anti-malware checks, bring your machine to an expert if you have to – but don’t make a full list of your important credentials if you aren’t sure about security.
Use a password manager.
If you haven’t heard of a password manager before, this is a great time to consider using one. It remembers all your passwords so you don’t have to, with the added bonus of extra security. The best part is you can use many of them for free.
Password managers have a variety of features that not only keep all your passwords in one place, but also ensure easy access and higher levels of security. You only need to remember your master password to enter the database.
Valuable extras range from synchronization for all your devices and one-time passwords to encryption, local backups, anti-phishing protection, and even two-factor authentication.
If you like the idea of better and safer password storage, but you’re not sure which software to use, we invite you to take a look at the best password managers you can currently get.
Think about the advanced security measures in place (if any).
If your accounts or password managers are protected by encryption keys or two-factor authentication, it may be impossible for your chosen trustees to access them without instructions.
Prepare for this potential issue by researching the security measures you’ve enabled. Write them down and explain clearly what needs to be done in order to gain access.
If encryption is involved, you’ll also need to provide access keys. Cloud service companies (and others who provide encrypted storage) typically won’t be able to help your family or friends out if the access keys are gone with you. That’s because you’re the only one who knows them. This may result in your encrypted data being lost forever.
As for two-factor authentication, look into using USB security keys instead of the traditional SMS notifications. They are a relatively new option, but are already proving as a better alternative to text messages due to much stronger security.
Google and Twitter have already added support for USB keys in their two-factor authentication, with more platforms sure to follow.
If you’re using encryption keys or USB authenticators, your sensitive data is kept much safer. But you need to be responsible about their storage.
Your trustees will have a much easier time accessing your digital possessions if they have these keys readily available once you’re gone – but if you’ve hidden them a little too well, access to these security measures may be impossible. Keep that in mind.
It goes without saying that the security keys should be kept in a safe place – preferably with all other documents pertaining to your digital death.
Consider professional help.
If you’re overwhelmed by information or you’re having difficulties with setting things up, you can always get some help from experts – attorneys, web services, maybe even both.
It’s one thing to consult with a lawyer about the documentation and strategy, and another to trust them with extremely sensitive information. Do your research if you’re about to seek outside assistance!
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of fake “attorneys” or shady services that take advantage of vulnerable people who don’t have much knowledge on the topic. This is another reason why it’s important to be informed about your digital assets and your rights to them – the more prepared you are, the less likely you’ll fall into a trap.
Once you’ve identified your digital possessions, made a list, and addressed all the important questions regarding security and authorization, it’s time to think about instructions.
Communication is a crucial part of preparing for digital death. By now, you probably understand a lot more about this subject, and you’re intimately familiar with many of the details.
Don’t assume the same for the people you’ve chosen as heirs and executors – they may not be on the same level as you, and technology may not be one of their strengths.
In order to adequately prepare your trusted family and friends, you’ll need to make a guide.
By walking people through the steps they need to take and presenting the important information in one place, you’ll help them out immensely when they need it most, while preventing extra stress and needless logistics. Think of it as doing them a favor – helping them help the memory of you.
The guide should be straightforward, explaining how everything is set up in a simple way – without too much technical talk. The steps should be clear and the necessary info should be readily available – if not, you should give clear directions on where to find it, along with any additional details for easy access.
If you’re trusting different people with different parts of your digital identity, consider making separate personalized guides.
For example, if you know that your spouse is very handy with computers, you can be a bit more specific in your explanations. Still, try to present the information in a concise manner – you don’t want to add to the stress with hectic, back-and-forth instructions.
Just to be sure, make several copies of the guide/guides. Keep all of them in the same place – preferably with other documents relevant to your digital death.
A word of advice: try to avoid storing these documents at home. Even if you have a safe and are extra careful, there’s always the risk of a break-in. If possible, opt for a deposit box in a bank or look into secure cloud services for online storage.
4. Say Your Digital Farewells
You’ve done some serious work – from organizing your digital assets and updating your passwords list to writing your will and leaving instructions to your loved ones.
Congratulations! You are now prepared for your digital death. But there’s one more thing you can do.
As the world rapidly shifts to the digital plane, more and more acquaintances and friendships are formed. Just like in the real world, these relationships can turn into something meaningful – and it hurts when they’re taken away. Digital mourning over the loss of someone special is every bit as sad and painful, but it also provides solace to the living.
This is why, over the years, many apps and services have been created that allow you to pre-record a farewell message that’s played when your time finally comes. Some of them even give you the option of sending greetings and well-wishes on special occasions.
If you want to say goodbye to those who aren’t close to you physically, but with whom you share a strong bond online, one of these sites may be able to help you out:
- SafeBeyond allows you to create and schedule personalized future messages to loved ones and future descendants. You can send video, audio or text for special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and more.
- GoneNotGone is another website where you can send messages to friends and relatives after you pass on. You can also prepare anniversary wishes, recite nursery rhymes for the little ones, or simply say what’s on your mind.
- MiLegacy has a website and app where you can narrate your life story. It has a “filing cabinet” feature that keeps your achievements in life, and it’s a nice alternative if you want to leave something more than messages or videos.
- AfterNote can record your final wishes, which can be helpful for managing your digital legacy. You can also leave messages to the ones you hold the closest, create a timeline of notable memories, and even link trustees to your account so your information can be accessed after you’re gone.
Of course, in the end, it’s your own decision if you’re comfortable with a “digital farewell”. One thing’s for sure: such messages from the afterlife can have the power to make the grieving process a little easier – and that can mean a lot.
We may not like thinking or talking about it, but digital death is a serious topic and it deserves more attention. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to be prepared for the worst – even if we have no plans of leaving this beautiful world anytime soon.
Is it complicated to plan for digital death? Yes. Is it lengthy and even tedious at times? It can be. Is it worth all the time and effort you’ll invest into it? Absolutely.
At vpnMentor, we sincerely hope this guide sheds more light on the important aspects of digital death, and helps you make your first steps towards taking control of your digital reflection. Congratulations on your responsible choice, and good luck!
If you found this guide useful in any way, don’t hesitate to share it so more people learn what digital death is and how they can prepare for it.
Published: jan 10, 2019