Many of us go through life without thinking twice before we post photos on Facebook, retweet on Twitter, send emails, or listen to music. We sign up for email newsletters, give out our phone number to receive coupons, pay our bills electronically, and manage the details of our lives using apps.
We silently create a data trail of our personal data, including behavior, emotions, location, and a network of who we’re connected with throughout life. We do this often without even realizing it.
Have you ever stopped to think about what happens to this data and your online accounts when you pass away?
Chances are, you probably haven’t. Most people don’t think about digital remains until someone close to them has passed away and they’re left picking up all of the pieces.
However, if there’s one thing certain in life, it’s that death is inevitable. Well, at least at this point in time... we’ll have to wait to see how amortals continue living in the future.
So, is there anything we can do to prepare our scattered data, online accounts and social media so that when we pass away, we know what will happen? Of course.
How do tech platforms handle the death of a user?
While we’re still in the early stages of tech companies adopting standards around the data and social media accounts of the deceased, there is progress with more options becoming available for pre-death planning and managing accounts of the deceased.
Since each tech platform has different terms of service and privacy policies to consider, there’s no one simple way to manage all of your digital assets, data and accounts.
Hopefully this will change in the future as the platforms mature, but for now, let’s consider what some of the largest social networks are doing when users pass away.
According to a recent study, there will be a minimum of 1.4 billion deceased Facebook users before 2100. That’s a lot of accounts! With a statistic like that, it’s no surprise that Facebook is leading the pack when it comes to creating options for users to decide what they want to do with their profile and digital legacy after death.
In the past few years, Facebook has implemented new functionality to help their users be more proactive about managing their own profile’s legacy.
As of today, users have the option to set a friend as a legacy contact or request that their profile be deleted after they pass away.
To access this setting in Facebook, users simply click “Settings” > “General Account Settings” > "Memorialization Settings". The user will then be prompted to a screen where a legacy contact can be added.
We had the opportunity to discuss the Facebook legacy process with Barak K., who recently lost his father.
“My dad died this April, aged 76. He wasn't a huge Facebook user. But he was on fairly often, sometimes posting. Mostly reading. He and my mom had lived in South Africa, Israel and the US and so had friends and family in these countries and more — so it was a way to connect with them, stay in touch.” says Barak.
“It was a pretty easy process. My dad was still logged in to his account on his computer. So, after making sure it was OK with my mom and brothers, a few days after he died I made myself his ‘legacy contact’ from within his account. Once I got his invitation, I accepted it from my account. I then got a 'Memorialize Request' email from Facebook. This was fast. Within the day. It was a bit confusing. It said:
I'm very sorry for your loss, and thanks for reaching out to us.
Your loved one made a decision about what they want to have happen to their Facebook account after they pass away. This means they either chose a legacy contact or asked Facebook to delete their account.
You can learn more about legacy settings by visiting the Help Center.
My thoughts are with you and your family. Please let me know if I can help answer any other questions you may have.’”
After receiving the email, Barak responded verifying he was the legacy contact. Once he was OK’d by Facebook, the page was renamed from Barry K. to Remembering Barry K.
Barak went on to explain, “I'm still not 100% sure about some things. e.g. what happens if he gets friend requests now. Can I accept them or not? If I do, does it come from me, or will I potentially be freaking people out who might think he actually is responding? I'm sure this is all in FB's help section. But I have not looked.”
When people lose someone important in their life, grief reactions and symptoms can be overwhelming and complicated, which makes the process of dealing with a loved one’s accounts even more challenging.
While Facebook is certainly ahead of most social media platforms, it’s clear that there’s still some room for improvement to help lessen the confusion for users during bereavement.
To learn more about managing a Facebook’s Legacy Contact, visit Facebook’s help center.
Considering Instagram is owned by Facebook, it’s no surprise that the functionality to memorialize an Instagram account is also available for users.
The functionality is, however, a bit different than it is for Facebook. According to Instagram’s help center, here are some of the key features of memorialized accounts:
- Instagram doesn’t allow anyone to log into a memorialized account.
- The profile of a memorialized account doesn't appear differently from an account that hasn't been memorialized.
- Posts the deceased person shared, including photos, videos and other digital assets, stay on Instagram and are visible to the audience they were shared with.
- Memorialized accounts don't appear in public spaces, like people's Explore section.
Once memorialized, no one will be able to make changes to any of the account's existing posts or info. This includes:
- Photos or videos added by the person to their profile.
- Comments on posts shared by the person to their profile.
- Privacy settings of their profile.
- The current profile photo, followers or people the person follows.
For someone to report an account to be memorialized, Instagram requests that a family member or friend fills out their contact form with a proof of death, such as a link to an obituary or news article.
To learn more about requesting the memorialization of a deceased person's Instagram account, visit Instagram’s help center.
While Twitter is not as advanced when it comes to linking legacy accounts and memorializing accounts, they do provide options for deactivating the accounts of the deceased.
In the event of the death of a Twitter user, Twitter works with a person authorized to act on behalf of the estate, or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have the account deactivated.
Someone must request the removal of a deceased user's account and after they submit the request, Twitter emails instructions for providing more details, including information about the deceased, a copy of the requestor’s ID, and a copy of the deceased’s death certificate. Twitter assures that the information will remain confidential and will be removed once it’s reviewed.
To learn more about requesting the deactivation of a deceased person’s Twitter account, please visit Twitter’s help center.
Similar to Twitter, Linkedin also provides the option for a third party to request the deactivation of a deceased person’s LinkedIn.
LinkedIn will remove their profile from view on a friend or family member’s behalf with the following information:
- The member's name
- The URL to their LinkedIn profile
- Your relationship to them
- Member's email address
- Date they passed away
- Link to obituary
- Company they most recently worked at
To learn more about requesting the deactivation of a deceased person’s LinkedIn account, please visit LinkedIn’s help center.
Whether it’s email, maps, calendars, photos, or one of the other many services Google offers, users have the option to make plans for their own accounts and also make requests for a deceased person’s account.
Google allows users to be proactive with planning for their account with their Inactive Account Manager.
The user has the option to let Google know who should have access to the account’s information, and whether the account should be deleted upon becoming inactive.
They also allow users to make a request for a deceased person’s account to either close the account of a deceased user, submit a request for funds from a deceased user's account, or obtain data from a deceased user's account.
To learn more about planning for your own account or making a request for a deceased person’s account, please visit Google’s help center.
For people with an iPhone, Macbook, iTunes or any other apple product or service, the Apple ID manages all of the user data and account information. If the login information isn’t left behind to a friend or family, Apple allows people to request access to a customer's accounts and devices after they have passed away.
Before Apple can provide assistance in accessing a deceased person’s device or the personal information they stored in iCloud, they ask that the person’s next of kin obtain a court order that names them as the rightful inheritor of their loved one’s personal information and digital life.
Apple also encourages customers to add an inheritance plan (similar to what you do for estate planning) to their will that covers the personal information they store on their devices and in iCloud. This may simplify the process of acquiring a proper court order and reduce delay and frustration for family members during a difficult time.
To learn more about planning for your own account or making a request for a deceased person’s Apple account, please visit Apple’s help center.
How can you prepare your digital remains?
While the information regarding how the big tech platforms are handling the accounts of the deceased, there are countless other accounts people will need to consider when it comes to end of life planning.
Since our society is still in a relatively fluid state when it comes to how we handle our own personal data and online accounts, it’s really up to the individual to plan for their own digital afterlife.
If you or someone you love is interested in planning for the future of your online accounts and data, we recommend you take the following steps.
Step 1: Take stock of your digital accounts & data.
We all have more accounts than we probably even realize. Start taking note of all of your accounts by going through your email, bank receipts, and mail.
Write a list of all of your accounts and note whether you’d like the account to remain open, handed to a friend, family member or other trusted person, or deactivated once you pass.
Remember to also note your devices such as mobile phones, laptops, iPads, etc.
Step 2: Create a password vault.
While it will be possible for your loved ones to gain access to your accounts by reaching out to the platforms you use, it will be much easier if you provide them with access to all of your accounts with passwords included in the event of your death.
Lastpass and 1password are both online password vaults that can help you with storing all of your online account logins and passwords.
Keep in mind that some accounts will need a 2-authentication login, meaning that your phone will likely also be needed to access more secure accounts.
The password vaults have an option to print your “emergency kit” which includes the master login to the password vault. This is a document that should be left for your loved ones.
Step 3: Talk to a professional.
To help ensure all of your accounts, data, and other personal matters are left to the right people, it will help to talk to a professional estate planner and/or will executor. Ask that your wishes for your digital remains that you outlined in step 1 be respected when you pass.
Talk about your data with your loved ones.
Since this topic is still relatively new to most, you may be the first person in your family to bring it up. That’s okay!
It will help everyone to discuss with your loved ones how you wish your digital remains, including online data and accounts, should be handled if/when you were to pass.
Let them know if you included it in your planning along with where and how they can manage your accounts in the event you pass.
While talking about death isn’t always fun, the more you plan now, the less chaotic the experience will be for your loved ones when they’re left with the grief of losing a loved one and managing their digital footprint and digital estate moving forward.