How to get your online assets in order for when you die

One day you are going to die. Your Facebook account, however, will most likely live on.

This is not merely a theoretical problem. If Facebook really has a billion users, then 20,000 of them or more die every day. Sooner or later someone you know is going to pass away—or your own friends and relatives will have to concern themselves with your digital detritus.

Zombie social media accounts, ghostly blogs, and defunct email accounts are, by definition, a growing problem on the Internet, and every major Internet service provider has a mechanism in place for handling accounts belonging to the deceased. (More on this in a bit.)

While it’s relatively simple—if time-consuming—to claim, delete, or memorialize these accounts, forward-looking users are planning ahead for their own demise. If you’re concerned about what will happen to your digital assets once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, it’s wise to think about your digital will at the same time that you’re working on your financial one.

Preparing for passing

Strategies abound for those looking to ensure that their beneficiaries can access or close down their accounts in an orderly manner.

The simplest (and least costly) course of action is to leave passwords for your accounts with a trusted person or put them in a secure location so that other people you’ve specified can access them after your death. You could leave a list of accounts and passwords with a lawyer or a close relative via an attachment to your will, or put the list in a safe deposit box that you authorize certain individuals to open after your death.

These are relatively easy things to do, but they also create certain problems. Foremost, these methods require substantial upkeep. If you change a password or add a new account, you’ll need to update the list. Running back to the bank every few weeks is impractical. Of course, handing your passwords to anyone—even someone trustworthy like your spouse—is dangerous, too. What happens if that list falls into the wrong hands? Or if your marriage dies before you do?

In response to these challenges, a host of third-party tools have arisen to help you manage your digital preparations for the great beyond.

Online tools

David Harris is the founder of one such tool. Assets In Order offers a tool called Your Legacy Lockbox, which lets you store wills, powers of attorney, photos, letters, account/password data, and more in an online safe that can only be opened after your death. Harris says he founded the service in 2010 after he was diagnosed with cancer and given 12 to 18 months to live. “I couldn’t find anything that was secure enough and that had the distribution capabilities I wanted,” he says. So—after recovering from his illness—he started his own company to create the service himself.

Personal.com CEO Shane Green.

Once you join, your data is secured unless verifiers (whom you’ve named in advance) present a death certificate or a notarized letter from a funeral home confirming your demise. Only then are your stored materials released according to your instructions. A free plan covers the basics; $20 a year gives you more storage and a larger number of recipients.

There are a vast numbers of similar services. Legacy Locker is virtually identical to Assets in Order, offering both a free plan and one with more options one for $30 per year or a one-time fee of $300. AssetLock offers similar plans for $10 to $80 per year, or up to a $240 lifetime membership fee.

Other services aren’t designed exclusively with data inheritance in mind, but do offer these services indirectly. Personal.com CEO Shane Green notes that his company’s service, which comprises a password manager and a form-autofill tool, can be used for succession planning as well. “You can put all your data and documents in Personal—including your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. We’ve even had customers put their student loan records in the system. You have a two-way connection—to put your data into the service or get it out,” he says.

You can share data with others, but the real advantage here is that your passwords stay up-to-date, so you don’t need to worry about updating the records in your digital lockbox if something changes. “Most of us have hundreds of online accounts,” says Green, so keeping this information current can be nearly impossible. Personal also partners with Everplans, which helps people manage end-of-life decisions about financial, legal, and estate planning matters.

At least one company—Google—is starting to look at digital inheritance issues directly, so that you don’t have to concern yourself with a third-party solution. The Google Inactive Account Manager does exactly what it sounds like: You tell Google what you want it to do with your Picasa photos, YouTube videos, Blogger blogs, Gmail, and more in the event that you don’t log in to your account after a certain amount of time you’ve  specified (three months to 18 months). People you’ve specified are then notified that they can download your stuff for three months after that, after which you can opt to have all your accounts deleted.

If you or a loved one dies without preparing

All of this is well and good, but it does little good for those who haven’t prepared in advance. In practice, that almost certainly comprises the vast majority of those who pass away having never given their digital lives a second thought.

If a loved one passes away, you’ll have to go through each service they used on an individual basis to request action, whether you want the account deleted, the information in it transferred to you, or the account frozen in time as a “memorial.” Each service has different rules about what you need to provide in order to prove your relationship, and also about what the service will and will not provide after a user has died.

In general, to access the account of a deceased user, you’ll be required to provide proof of death as well as proof that you have the right to access the files. The more documentation you have, the easier this is to do, so plan ahead by requesting an official copy of the death certificate, any written instructions from the deceased, and proof of your relationship with them (marriage certificate, birth certificate, etc.) before you start making calls.

This is bound to be an emotional and difficult time if you’re trying to handle the aftermath of a loved one’s death, and the last thing you’ll want to deal with is a wild goose chase for documents while you’re trying to get closure, digitally speaking. On the other hand, if you expect the document-gathering process to take considerable time, it can make sense to contact providers in advance to ensure that your data is preserved properly.

Here’s a sampling of what you can expect, policy-wise, from some of the major online service providers and data storage companies.

Assuming the user did not have Inactive Account Manager (see above) set up, Google requires a death certificate (translated and notarized if not in English) and proof that you have communicated with the user via their Gmail account. Google considers each request individually, after which you are further required to get a U.S. court order to transfer the account to you.

Yahoo, on the other hand, does not allow accounts to be transferred even after the death of the user at all. (Sorry, Flickr users!) The company will however shut down the account of a deceased user and delete all of the account’s data upon receipt of a death certificate. However, without said notice, these accounts otherwise remain open in perpetuity.

Facebook is unique in allowing accounts to be memorialized, which prevents anyone from logging in to an account and new friends from being added. Depending on privacy settings, new comments can be added to the memorialized timeline, and private messages can still be sent to the account. Otherwise, the content on the page remains intact and visible as before. For Facebook, a URL to an online obituary or news of the deceased’s passing suffices for proof. To actually take content out of a Facebook account requires a court order.

Microsoft’s Next of Kin process covers only email accounts. SkyDrive and Xbox Live are not releasable upon your death. Family members must provide a death certificate (or proof of the user’s incapacitation) and proof that they are indeed next of kin or executor of a will. Upon verification, accounts may be closed and deleted, or their contents shipped to you on DVD. Remember: The contents of most Microsoft email accounts are deleted after nine months of inactivity, and inactive accounts themselves are deleted after 12 months.

Twitter will deactivate an account only after receiving proof of a user’s death, such as a link to an online obituary.

Dropbox suggests simply opening the Dropbox folder on the deceased person’s computer “if you’re authorized to do so.” Failing that, you’ll need a court order to access their files.

That’s just a sampling of providers’ policies, of course. For companies that have a digital-inheritance policy, it generally isn’t hard to find. The best way to dig up this information is simply to do a Web search for “servicename deceased” rather than hunting through FAQs for this information.

It’s important to remember that not everything can be transferred from a deceased individual to someone else. Apple iTunes and Amazon media—particularly media that is stored in the cloud—is probably not transferrable to someone else, even after the user passes away. Of course, not everything is as final as death. As with all good things that can’t be put to rest, a federal case is pending on the matter.

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