Preparing for your own death is sort of like — well, it’s actually unlike anything else, because it means you have to come face-to-face with your own mortality (and admit that this is one fight you’re guaranteed to lose). It also means preparing for a world without you in it, and because these days that world is largely made up of cyberspace, your digital afterlife requires the same level of attention — if not more than — whether you want to be buried and put in the ground or turned into ash.
Let’s get started.
Why should I care about what happens to my online profile when I kick the bucket?
There are two schools of thought when it comes to caring about your online presence after you’ve died. On the one hand, there’s the, “I’m dead, who cares?” group, to whom I say, sure, good point. Second and more likely — because narcissism supersedes mortality — there’s the group of people who want to make sure their digital nudie pics are left in the right hands.
Perhaps more important than any of this, though, is the reality that much of our business is done online these days, and you don’t want to leave your Venmo or Paypal accounts open and susceptible to fraud. “In reality we have a massive digital footprint,” says Evan Collins, co-author of Your Digital Afterlife, a book about securing your digital assets. “Many of the things that we might want or not want our family to get access to are digital. To not prepare for what happens to these things or to not take action is leaving the fate of your entire digital footprint to chance.”
Uh… crap. What happens to my Venmo and stuff, then?
In the case of your Venmo account or Paypal account — which Collins says will likely live on unless someone helps close them — you need to consider the liability that comes along with keeping those accounts open after you’ve died. “Your Venmo account is connected to your bank account, which means it can suck money out of your bank account,” says Collins. “If your online banking accounts live on, in theory, funds could be stolen from your estate after you’re gone.”
To that end, the fate of your online bank account depends on how you’ve set up your offline bank account. If it’s a joint account, your partner gets sole ownership of that account after you’ve died. “If you have an account in your own name, but don’t designate a payable-on-death beneficiary, the account will likely have to go through probate before money can be transferred,” reports Huffington Post. Alternatively, you could create a trust so that your funds will be transferred to your successor upon your death, at which point your online account will be closed. And if no one accesses or claims your account for three to five years (depending on the state you live in), the account will be turned over to that state, where the funds will be held as unclaimed property, according to Mybanktracker.com.
So what’s the single most basic step for the rest of it?
According to Collins, the most important thing to consider — even if you’re considering doing nothing — is to decide what you’d like to happen with your digital assets, then have that conversation with one trusted confidante. “The most frustrating thing for the family of a recently deceased loved one is trying to figure out what said love one would have wanted,” says Collin. In other words, don’t leave it up to your mom (in case she outlives you) to sort through the hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures on your phone to decide which ones to put in the family photo album, and which ones should never see the light of day.
That seems easy enough, but I want more control.
“Set up various digital account managers,” says Collins. There’s Google’s inactive account manager, for example, which is a way for you to share parts of your account data with a trusted contact in case you’ve been inactive for a certain period of time. “Contacts will only receive notification once your account has been inactive for the specified amount of time — they won’t receive any notification during setup. If you chose to only notify your contacts of your inactive account, they’ll receive an email with a subject line and content that you wrote during setup,” reads Google’s Account Help page.
Collins adds that there’s also a Facebook legacy contact, which is basically the same thing, except this means establishing a person who would manage your Facebook page once it’s been memorialized. According to Facebook, this means the word “Remembering” will be shown next to your name on your profile, so your friends can share memories on the memorialized timeline. More importantly, your profile won’t appear in public spaces such as in suggestions for People You May Know, ads or birthday reminders.
Additionally, Collins suggests incorporating your digital assets into your will. He explains that, based on The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, if the service in question has a function whereby you can specify your wishes and you have activated that feature (e.g., Facebook legacy contact), then those wishes supersede anything listed elsewhere. “Second goes to those wishes outlined in your will and third is whatever the terms of service say,” says Collins.
Who has time to read the terms of service?
No one. But Collins has and says it’s different for most companies. For Facebook, they encourage people to report profiles of deceased users so they can be put in memorialized state. “By and large, most accounts will sit there and live on until they’re closed due to inactivity,” he explains.
Another way to go about it — in case you don’t have a single person in your life that you can trust, which may well be your situation — is to contact a service like Directive Communications Services to make sure that directives related to digital assets are carried out. “They work with lawyers, and they send out emails on your behalf after you’re dead — to close your accounts or to keep them open,” says Collins.
All well and good, but is it fair to leave a digitally memorialized version of yourself behind for your grieving loved ones? Wouldn’t it be better to just delete everything?
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Collins. “Facebook profiles become a source of communal bereavement, and social profiles are a fascinating virtual cemetery. They’re highly authentic because they were built by you — it’s the place you created and that’s powerful from a memorial standpoint.” But Collins also says that as humans, we grow accustomed to someone being dead as time passes, and things like social profiles that act as a constant reminder can make the grieving process more difficult in the long run.
Still, Collins believes that no matter what you think of memorialized social profiles, at least consider it. “People don’t enjoy thinking about death,” he says. “It’s like backing up your computer: You know you should do it, but you just don’t. The only difference is that with a computer, once you’ve lost it once, you’re likely to learn your lesson. But with this, you only get one shot.”