By Wayne Caswell, retired IBM technologist, market strategist, and founder of Modern Health Talk
Friends from Beyond explores the role of social media and digital assets after death, and the need to think about this ahead of time, even creating a digital will to say who acts as executor and who takes ownership of the accounts, which ones get deleted, as well as if any should be preserved for perpetuity.
The article extends the thinking of last week’s post, The Legacy of a Digital Generation, which asked, What will be your legacy?
Will future generations remember you, what you did, and what you valued? Where will they go to reflect on your life? Will it be a grave site, a virtual memorial setup as a perpetual website, or your social media accounts?
Identify Your Online Accounts
Does your will cover your digital assets? A 2011 study by McAfee found that Americans place an average value of about $55,000 on their digital assets, but most lack protection for these assets should they die. 41% of aging Baby Boomers don’t even have a will, and that rises to 71% for adults under age 34.
Take an inventory of your online accounts, and you may be surprised how many you have. My own quick check found 6 online bill-paying accounts, 3 banking & investing accounts, 6 insurance accounts, several miscellaneous financial accounts, at least 17 social media accounts, and that’s just a start and doesn’t include my smartphone, tablet and PC.
While I wouldn’t mind if many of them were closed soon after my death and money matters settled, I do want my blog and consulting website to stay since they house my articles, whitepapers, market research, presentations, and other work that helps tell a story of who I am (or was). I also want my Facebook and Linkedin accounts to stay, because that’s where friends and colleagues find me. Digital photos on my PC should also be preserved, or at least sorted through to pick out the best. But my PC also a password too. How will my executor know all of those passwords? Maybe I can reach out from beyond.
Being a Friend from Beyond.
Many families value the Facebook wall postings of loved ones’ friends as they visit and reflect, even months or years after the funeral. If a Facebook account is left online but dormant, friends can discover the ghostly last words and activities that were posted just prior to death, as well as the heartwarming and comforting wall posting by visitors. If you don’t want to see those visitor postings, because they bring back painful memories, you could de-friend your own loved one or have the account closed.
Some families, however, choose to assume ownership of the account and post occasional status updates and new thoughts to keep the memories fresh. An now you can now also arrange to post updates yourself, even after you’re gone.
With services like DeathSwitch, you can write messages for friends and loved ones to send by email or post on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and for delivery sometime after your death — days, months, even years after you’ve passed. Such posthumous messages might disclose the hidden location of your will and the key to your safe deposit box, as well as provide passwords for your online accounts, share your secret thoughts, offer advice to younger generations, provide health alerts to your offspring, send good wishes on anniversaries and birthdays, or help settle a grudge. Free versions usually limit the number of messages & recipients to one, but paid versions let you send several messages to more recipients and attach files.
Other services such as Cirrus Legacy Digital Legacy Services, Entrustet and Legacy Locker provide a secure place to store account access information but without the creepiness of reaching out from the grave through email and social media.
Cirrus Legacy is a British firm that keeps vital information safe, including logins, passwords, membership numbers, and data files. Their free version only keeps your account information but with no provision for maintaining it after you die. Three premium memberships support multiple guardians and file storage up to 100 MB.
Legacy Locker was one of the first secure repositories to grant friends and loved ones access to your online assets in the event of loss, death, or disability. They have a free version with limited assets & beneficiaries and an unlimited version for $30/year or $300 forever.
Entrustet (see video below) is a free service that enables account holders to pass account access to up to 10 designated heirs and one executor, who is in charge of executing a person’s digital wishes after they pass away.
Terms of Service Vary
Most online services have no way to know when a person passes away, and few have policies for handling their accounts. Facebook is one that does. Their terms of service say Facebook will not issue login and password information to family members of a person who has died, but a family member can contact the company and request the dead person’s profile be taken down or turned into a memorial page. If the family chooses a memorial page, the account can never again be logged into. Facebook says it will provide a download of the deceased’s data if prior consent is decreed or mandated by law, but laws can be changed.
State Laws Vary Too
The laws are unclear in this space, and I understand that only five states — Connecticut, Idaho, , Indiana, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island — have any laws governing digital assets after death. Connecticut was first, but it just references e-mail and not blogs, social networks, banking accounts, etc. A bill introduced in Nebraska would grant access and control of a dead person’s digital accounts to their personal representative as appointed by the probate court or the heir to the estate.
What will I do?
There are relatively easy steps I can take today to save my loved ones lots of time later, but I’m just now starting to think about this for my wife and son, and I’ve not decided yet. I’m still a little distrustful of putting so much valuable information in an online service that may or may not be around in 15 years or so. That’s why I’m leaning toward copying all important files — including scanned copies of our will; medical powers of attorney; list of accounts, IDs and password hints, and photos — to a USB “thumb” drive and then storing that in our safe deposit box. I prefer to use password hints instead of listing all of the passwords, since I can give guidance of how to interpret the hints separately to my wife and son where only they would make sense of them.
Although my digital persona and legacy is already pretty extensive, much of it is in text form, making it cumbersome for others to absorb. That’s why I like the idea of recording a video memoir on YouTube, stored along with video blog episodes of Modern Health Talk once I start producing them. That’s pretty easy to do these days with webcams and broadband connections, and soon we’ll have the ability to record video of our daily activities.