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What Happens to Your Online Presence When You Die? Plan for Your Digital Demise

Written by Dr. Robert Schmid

When you think seriously about planning for your ultimate demise, you always consider your insurance policies, financial assets, the property you own, your personal possessions, you’re loved ones and your pets. Then you make a will. Most people rarely if ever, consider their online digital footprints. We often forget that the longer you’ve been online, the more extensive the accounts you've accumulated. They include routine social media accounts like Facebook, business accounts like LinkedIn, personal accounts like Instagram, everything you’ve accidentally or deliberately connected to Google, and even those XXX accounts you may not want anyone to find out about!

It might seem frivolous to make plans for all your online accounts; you have a house, kids, and a spouse to worry about! Why worry about the internet? Regardless of the “value” of these accounts, it’s more than a good idea to think about your final wishes in cyberspace. It’s prudent to safeguard these accounts just like any other. They have, after all been a part of your life and you deserve to have the final say over what happens to them. Your accounts have pictures, writings, comments, messages and emails. They run the gambit from mundane to very sensitive.

Even more importantly, the big corporate players like Apple, Facebook and Google have data about you that include medical records, purchases you made and didn’t make, things you’ve looked up online, and even every place you’ve been with your cell phone. How much of that do you want to leave when you’re no longer here to watch over things?

The answer to this dilemma is to organize your online presence, decide what to keep and what to dispose of, and choose who should carry out your wishes. Most sites will allow you to have your account closed and data deleted. Some will allow your presence to be memorialized, kept online but only to be viewed. Some, if you have the appropriate access, will allow the account to be transferred to a new account holder. You get to choose what happens and the way to get that accomplished is to do the following:

Step One: Make an Inventory

The most important part of insuring your post mortem wishes will be followed is to inventory your online presence. List every account you have and the appropriate access information. The list should include social media (Facebook, Instagram), email, messaging, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp), service (Grubhub, eBay, Pandora), Business accounts (LinkedIn, Staples, Trello), web based finances (PayPal, Mint) and app-based accounts (Fitbit, Tinder, Match, Uber). Any account you access through your phone or computers should be on the list.

Step Two: Divide the List into Categories

Once you have your list, it should be divided into categories. The most basic category should be those social media, messaging and app accounts where you post and communicate with family and friends. Another should be accounts you use primarily for business like LinkedIn or for online finances like Paypal. A third should be personal accounts where data about you, your health, your movements are being collected. Finally, any truly sensitive accounts that you would not want your survivors to access. The above categories are arbitrary, so feel free to add categories with the emphasis on segregating accounts into categories that can be assigned to specific “trustees” to handle on your demise.

Step Three: Add Access Information and Disposition Information

Once you have the category lists, record each account’s access and any authentication information, and then note what you want done with the account. Keep the disposition information to the three broad choices: delete, memorialize, or transfer. Sometimes the only allowed choice will be to delete the account. Other providers may allow you to memorialize your data, to keep it online and available but not allow it to be altered or added to. Some may actually allow the account to be transferred or kept open for use by a new account “holder” you designate. Regardless, you should make your wishes known.

Step Four: Assign a Trustee

The final step in this process is to assign the categorized list to a “trustee”. In each case it should be a person you trust to handle the account as you have noted. As an example, you might want a family member to handle the social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram) but give the chore of handling the financial accounts (PayPal, Venmo, Ebay, Uber) to your executor. Remember, some accounts (Uber) access others (Paypal) for payments which in turn access bank accounts for funds. Some accounts might be extremely sensitive and personal (medical, dating accounts). And a few may allow you to chose what happens upon your demise in their settings. Although you can do some of this work yourself using legacy and inactivity settings, you should still appoint a trusted family member or friend to make sure the work has been done as you wished. The most sensitive of all accounts should probably be left to your personal lawyer or a very close trusted friend.

None of us relish the idea of planning for our digital demise, but it is best if, like your financial arrangements, it is done methodically and with considered forethought.


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The New Media Institute (NMI) is a research and fact finding organization whose mission is to improve public understanding of issues surrounding the Internet and other forms new media communications. NMI works directly with the news media, researchers, academics, government and industry professionals and serves as a primary resource of facts, statistics and analysis.

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