Your Digital Footprint: 5 Steps to Managing the Virtual Afterlife

1. Assessing Your Impact: What’s Included in Your Digital Footprint?

You may not realize this, but throughout your lifetime, you have been making an imprint on the virtual world. When you pass, your digital footprint will remain behind. What’s included in your digital footprint?

  • Personal correspondence (emails, text messages, etc.)
  • File and documents (both on your devices and in the cloud)
  • Photographs and videos
  • Financial information
  • E-book and music libraries (you bought the right to view and retain this media, after all!)
  • Subscription services
  • And much more!

While some of these can be eliminated and resolved relatively quickly (subscriptions can be cancelled, for example), others hold significant sentimental value for your loved ones (your photographs, videos, and personal writings). Other assets, such as your online bank accounts, libraries, and work product, may have real financial value. With so much of our lives online, not having a plan for our digital assets isn’t an option.

  1. Making a Plan: How will Your Digital Assets Transfer?

With security measures being what they are, a loved one may have a very difficult experience (spending lots of time, money, and even public legal disputes) attempting to access and gather your online information. Under the 1986 Stored Communications Act (part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act), public communications services may be prohibited from disclosing electronic communications without the owner’s consent or a search warrant. Depending on the company’s policy and the relevant terms of service, your loved ones may or may not be able to access valuable data. So, what can you do about it?

Take stock of your digital imprint.

  • Make a list of your electronic hardware (including computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, cameras, hard drives, and flash drives). Describe in the list where each item is located, what is stored on it, and any password(s) required.
  • Identify software you use to store data. This can include word processing programs/software, spreadsheets, financial records software, tax preparation programs, etc. Again, list where this software is stored, what data it contains, and any necessary passwords.
  • Think about your online presence and write it all out. This can be a time-consuming step because many people have numerous accounts and passwords, and your online presence is ever-changing. Make this a living document. It will need to be updated every time you create a new account or change your password. Your online presence includes social media accounts, your website, your blog, any cloud accounts, photo storage websites, email accounts, bank accounts, online shopping sites, online bill pay, and any other sites that store your credit card or bank information. On your list, include passwords, account/usernames, and any specific instructions for when you pass. For example, you may want your social media accounts deleted, but your website or blog kept up and running. If your site currently or potentially produces revenue, include information regarding that.
  • Keep your list in a safe place. Choose someone who you trust to be responsible for your digital afterlife and tell them where the lists can be found when the time comes. 
  1. Selecting a Representative: Who Can You Trust to Manage Your Accounts?

In addition to providing a list for a trusted person to access your accounts after you pass, some online platforms actually allow you to designate how you want your accounts managed in the even of your incapacity or death.

  • Facebook: Appoint a “Legacy Contact,” who will be allowed to manage parts of your account when you die. Facebook’s Terms of Service don’t let your Legacy Contact sign into your account and see your private messages, but they can post a pinned message to your timeline, respond to friend requests, and update your profile picture and header image. If you choose to do so, your Legacy Contact can also download and archive your posts and photos.
  • Google: There is no specific mechanism to appoint a person to manage your accounts, but there is a specific length of time during which an account can remain inactive (called the “Inactive Account Manager”). For all Google accounts, including Gmail, Photos, and Google Drive, you can select trusted contacts who will be notified if you account becomes inactive for a certain amount of time (you set the length of time). These select individuals will have three months to download any data from your accounts before they are deleted. If you don’t want anyone to be able to access your Google accounts, you can use this tool to specify when an inactive account should be deleted.
  • Instagram: A loved one can contact the platform and ask that your account be memorialized. This means that while the posts will still be visible, the account will no longer be available to log in or make changes, and it will be removed from the Search and Explore archives.
  • Twitter and Yahoo: These platforms do not allow anyone to access your account after you die. Instead, these companies will allow a family member, a personal representative, or someone with power of attorney to provide proof that the account holder is deceased, at which time they will deactivate or delete the account.
  • Password Managers: Legacy features can give a trusted contact access to your passwords. Keep in mind that some websites prohibit password-sharing in their terms of service. This means that even if you give a trusted person permission to access your account using your password, doing so will be in violation of the terms of service.
  1. Writing it Down: How Do You Include Your Virtual Afterlife in Your Will?

Many online accounts do not have a mechanism for you to appoint fiduciaries in advance, so you will need to designate a person in your Will. Make sure to write how much access you want them to have and what you would like done with your data. Do not include detailed account information and passwords in your Will because it will become a part of the public record during the probate process. Place all sensitive information in a safe place and make sure that the designated person knows where to find it.

  1. Making it Known: Who Do You Need to Contact to Ensure Your Assets are Handled Properly?

Bank accounts, insurance policies, and other accounts that you hold exclusively online will have either a beneficiary designation form or a payable-on-death (POD) designation. These forms will allow you to choose a beneficiary who will receive the assets from these accounts when you die. It will be essential that you keep copies of these forms in a safe place, along with your other digital footprint assets so that accounts are not forgotten.

Ask a Maryland Estate Planning Attorney for Assistance

If you are ready to safeguard your digital footprint, start by calling our office in Rockville, Maryland at (301) 315-0811 to schedule an appointment with an estate planning attorney today!

Written by Neil Tyra