How to Manage Your Data After Death


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Estate planning now means managing your virtual legacy too -- from your Facebook account and digitized family photos to your email inbox and your favorite playlist.

Estate planning has gotten a bit more complicated, so I recently ran through this important to-do list:

  • Have a will: Check.
  • Have a durable power of attorney: Check.
  • Have a health care power of attorney: Check.
  • Have a plan for digital stuff, like photos, email, Facebook page, Twitter account: Uh-oh.

I bet I’m like many of you in that I have made no post-death plans for my digital life and possessions.

Name a digital executor

It has come to the point where so much of our personal lives and business is in digital form, that it makes sense to name someone — your legal executor or someone else you trust — to be your “digital executor” to manage your online accounts and digital property after your death. The responsibility, as outlined by the online estate-planning site Everplans, may include:

  • Archiving personal files, photos, videos and other content you’ve created
  • Deleting files from your computer or other devices, or erasing devices’ hard drives
  • Maintaining certain online accounts, which may include paying for services to continue (such as web hosting services)
  • Closing certain online accounts, such as social media accounts, subscription services or any accounts that are paid for (such as Amazon Prime)
  • Transferring any transferable accounts to your heirs
  • Collecting and transferring any money or usable credits to your heirs
  • Transferring any income-generating items (websites, blogs, affiliate accounts, etc.) to your heirs
  • Informing any online communities or online friends of your death

Pass on passwords

If you do nothing else, make sure you record all of your passwords so your executor or someone else you designate can manage or close your accounts after your death. Store the list in a mutually agreed and secure place. Don’t put passwords in your will, though, because that becomes a public document.

Passing on your passwords is essential. With many digital assets, privacy policies will prevent your survivors from accessing your accounts without them.

Spell out how you want each of your accounts handled. Do you want them destroyed? Do you want some of the photos, communication, creative material or business correspondence left to a member of the family?

Email and social media accounts

In general, you need to read the terms and conditions of each site you deal with to find out what can be done with your online presence after you die. But here is what some of the major ones say:

Google: Google’s Inactive Account Manager feature lets you decide whether to pass your Google email and other data — including YouTube videos — to your designated heirs or erase it after a preset period of inactivity. A warning will be sent to you before that happens so you can stop the deletion if you’re still alive.

Yahoo: The service does not make any provisions for you to hand off your account, but you can still entrust someone with your username and password so they can access your account to gather information and photos from it. Barring that, all your successors can do is shut it down, according to Yahoo’s terms of service:

No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.

Microsoft: Outlook email accounts, as well as some other Microsoft accounts (hotmail.com, @live.com, @windowslive.com or @msn.com) are handled through Microsoft’s Next of Kin process. As reported by Everplans, this process:

[A]llows for the release of Outlook.com contents, including all emails and their attachments, address book, and Messenger contact list, to the next of kin of a deceased or incapacitated account holder and/or closure of the Microsoft account, following a short authentication process. [Microsoft] cannot provide you with the password to the account or change the password on the account, and we cannot transfer ownership of the account to the next of kin. Account contents are released by way of a data DVD which is shipped to you.

So, your heirs could gain access to the contents of your Microsoft accounts by jumping through some hoops, but it sure would be nice if they didn’t have to do that. Again, if you give your digital executor access to the account, they can dole out the contents according to your wishes, and shut it all down.

Facebook: The social media giant provides for you to specify in advance whether you want your account deleted or memorialized. The latter allows your Facebook friends to share their remembrances. To carry out your wishes, you can name a “legacy contact” on Facebook to manage your memorial page. Loved ones can also submit the request here to memorialize your page by first providing proof of their relationship to you and proof of your death. If you would like to have a final word, there is a Facebook app called IfIDie that lets you create a post or video that will be shared on Facebook only after your death. Does that sound appealing to you?

Instagram: The social media platform offers a way for survivors to request that the account of the deceased be memorialized or shut down. The company’s privacy policy prevents them from providing access to the account, so you would need to provide that access in advance if you wanted someone to have it.

Twitter: “In the event of the death of a Twitter user, we can work with a person authorized to act on the behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated,” Twitter says. The social media site will not provide access to the account of the deceased.

Paying for help

There’s a lively competition among online services that can help you prepare your estate and manage your digital assets. Depending on the complexity and value of your online assets, it may serve you to pay a fee for the expert help. Here are a couple of services that specifically address digital assets:

  • Planned Departure bills its services as “life and estate planning tools for the digital world.”
  • Everplans offers a “secure digital archive of everything loved ones will need” if you are incapacitated or die.

Have you had to manage a digital legacy of someone who has died? Do you have any other suggestions for our readers? Share them on our Facebook page.

Kari Huus contributed to this post.

Stacy Johnson

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