It used to be easier to plan for your demise. All you needed was a will, a list of your significant bank account numbers and essential passwords, a safe deposit box to store it all, and someone you trust to manage things. Dying has become more complicated due to our expanded digital lives.
Our digital life includes social media accounts, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and smaller platforms like Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Reddit, and email services like Google. Since they are free and make their money on your data, dead or alive, they are okay with you living forever digitally.
I recently got a LinkedIn message asking me to congratulate a friend on his 15th-year anniversary with his company. Unfortunately, he passed away several years prior. This cold, computer-generated notification made me sad and wonder how our digital presence should be handled post-mortem.
The first question is, “Do you care? I do. I’m the person who tidies up his hotel room before checking out. I do not like leaving a mess for anyone, let alone my loved ones, after heading off to the Elysium Fields, Valhalla, Heaven, or whatever afterlife will take me.
Therefore, to make the lives of a grieving spouse or children less complicated you should create a Digital Life List and add it to the other practical information needed to handle your affairs. And provide some practical instructions on what you want to be done. This list should include usernames and passwords for your smartphone, tablet, computer, email, and social media accounts, among other crucial digital information. Your digital life may not be real but it will need to be handled.
The average individual in the US has seven social media accounts per person. Approximately 302 million people use social media networks, about 90 percent of the population – that’s a lot of people.
The over-65 crowd, which I am part of, uses social media the least among the key demographic age groups and is a less critical part of their lives compared to younger users. Deciding how to handle your digital legacy after death is a bigger issue for millennials, described as the first digitally-native generation.
Social media is twenty years old, and millennials have over two decades of sharing photographs, videos, and other personal information for millions to see, all stored in the cloud. In a recent CBS News report, Mitch Mitchell, Associate Counsel of Estate Planning at Trust and Will, said, “This stuff can outlive you in ways that tangible stuff may not.”
Millennials are now getting married, having kids, and thinking about boring things like life insurance, wills, and other related matters. This is why Mitchell says millennials are also beginning to plan for what will happen to their digital legacy upon their death, even designating someone to control their social media.
According to Mitchell’s company estate planning study, “… three-quarters of millennials are naming a “Digital Executor” to decide what digital information should be kept or deleted. This sounds like a very depressing job. Imagine having to sift through, box up, and toss out your loved one’s physical property and then go through several terabytes of digital content ranging from Instagram wedding pictures to pictures of their favorite mocktail.
The study, which surveyed 20,000 millennials, reported that 29% were likelier than the older generations to want their emails, direct messages, and texts kept private from their family after death. Almost 40% want their social media accounts deleted, about 20% want them memorialized or preserved, and the rest “don’t care”.
Upon the death of a loved one, social media platforms are efficient ways for family members to let people in mass know when a loved one has died, provide funeral arrangements, know where to send donations, and help insulate a grieving family from being besieged with well-meaning phone calls asking for such information. After a period of time, I would turn social media accounts off to avoid them being hacked and misused.
Social media companies have policies regarding what happens when an account holder dies. Removing a loved one’s Facebook account requires the family member to provide documentation to confirm they are an immediate family member or executor of the account holder and to provide a death certificate. Facebook also provides an option to allow an account to be memorialized, a place where friends and family can gather and share memories after a person has passed away. The other social media companies have similar policies.
Facebook also allows you to designate a Legacy Contact, a person to take control of the account once the account holder has died. They can manage tribute posts and decide who can post and who can see and delete posts. Google also provides a similar option to assign an Inactive Account Manager. They are good things to set up now.
When I told a buddy about this article, he said he once went on a white water rafting trip with his wife, who managed his entire life. His wife had a harrowing moment on the rapids and was tossed from the raft and submerged under the water for what seemed a long time. Later that evening, she asked her husband, “Were you anxious seeing me in mortal danger?” He responded, “Yes, I don’t have any of your passwords.”
Your Digital Life List must include usernames and passwords for all your digital hardware to help family members cancel social media accounts and other premium subscription accounts quicker by appearing as if the account holder was doing it. This includes digital premium streaming services, apps, and cloud storage subscriptions, among others. If these accounts are not shut down, the tech companies will keep pinging your credit card post-mortem until the account is deactivated or the credit card associated with it is canceled or expires.
Family members need hardware passwords more than ever due to enhanced security features, such as double authentication, fingerprint ID, and facial recognition. For example, some online banking and other transactions involve sending a verification code to a smartphone or email address to confirm the person’s identity to complete the transaction. Therefore, if you don’t have access to your loved one’s email and smartphone you are in trouble.
In the EU, it is much easier to delete your digital life, alive or deceased. There is a general regulatory data rule known as “the right to erasure,” sometimes called the “right to be forgotten.” All you have to do is write a letter to the company and ask that all your data be deleted. I am a big fan of being digitally forgotten because there are only a few people who will really care when I’m gone, and they will not need my digital presence to remember me.
Hugh Panero, a tech & media entrepreneur, was the founder & former CEO of XM Satellite Radio. He has worked with leading tech venture capital firms and was an adjunct media professor at George Washington University. He writes about Tech and Media for the Spy.