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One day you’ll leave this earth, but your data will live on in a messy future

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One day you’ll leave this earth, but your data will live on in a messy future
3 How to secure your enduring digital legacy


So much of how we live and interact with the world happens online. From engaging with people professionally and personally, to posting photos, storing files and accessing our bank account information, this all represents what’s known as our “digital legacy.”

What happens to all of this after we pass away? Unlike physical items that we may pass on after we die, such as photos, jewelry, an heirloom, a home, an inheritance, etc., how to handle your digital estate is a totally new conversation.

According to a recent study by the cybersecurity company TrendMicro, only 3% of respondents who were 65 and older had a digital estate plan. What happens to the other 97% of respondents’ digital assets? Who is responsible after someone passes on? Where does the information go?

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man on laptop

A man typing on his laptop. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

What are “digital assets” and what is “digital legacy”?

Digital assets are any content or resources that exist in digital form, including files like photos, videos, emails and social media accounts, as well as online properties such as websites or cryptocurrency. On the other hand, a digital legacy encompasses all the digital assets an individual leaves behind after death.

This legacy can include personal, financial and creative digital properties that may need to be managed or transferred according to the deceased’s wishes or legal directives. Managing a digital legacy is becoming an increasingly important aspect of estate planning, as it ensures that digital assets are handled appropriately, respecting both legal requirements and the personal preferences of the deceased.

With over 20-plus years of experience, cybersecurity and education expert Lynette Owens, VP of Global Consumer Education & Marketing of Trend Micro — Digital Estate Planning — helps us answer these questions.

COUPLE on laptop

A couple looking at their laptop. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

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What happens to our vast and intangible footprint — our digital assets — when we pass on?

Digital assets, such as emails, digital photos, online accounts and subscriptions, digital currencies and documents, remain as they are when we pass on, so it is vital to consider who should take care of them and what should happen to them.

Depending on the company’s privacy policies, there are several possibilities for what can happen to our private and sensitive information when we die. While these scenarios are not always clear and can be very nuanced, examples include data sometimes being deleted after a certain period and the worst-case scenario, which is your data ending up in the wrong hands.

However, creating a digital estate plan — and ensuring you have someone to take care of your digital assets and information when you pass — allows you to decide where information will go and how your accounts will be managed.

FAMILY on laptop

A family viewing material on a laptop. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

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What does a person stand to lose if they don’t protect their digital assets?

Preserving and taking precautions when it comes to your digital legacy is essential for several reasons:

1. Legal and financial considerations: Online digital assets such as online bank accounts have financial value that should be managed by the executor of your estate or the trustee of your trust. However, they may not have the information to access accounts that are purely online. There’s a need to ensure these assets are managed correctly.

2. Genealogy and family lineage: Organizing this can provide insights into family history and genealogy for later generations. This information lets you track down family relationships, relatives and connections.

3. Personal and emotional security: Unmanaged, dormant online accounts are susceptible to hacking and misuse and can be used to commit identity theft and fraud.

4. Preserving memories: An online archive of treasured moments like pictures, videos and messages shared on different social media platforms allows family members to access and preserve memories easily. Some online accounts can also be memorialized, so users know someone has passed. Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away. Memorializing an account also helps keep it secure by preventing anyone from logging into it.

4 How to secure your enduring digital legacy

A man on his laptop. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

Who is responsible for this information after someone passes on? 

After someone passes away, each company will follow its privacy policy regarding handling inactive or deceased persons’ accounts. You can appoint a digital executor to manage your digital assets as part of your estate plan. This individual, who does not necessarily have to be the executor of your estate or trustee of your trust, should be trustworthy, digitally knowledgeable and capable of handling detailed administrative tasks.

They should be designated as your digital executor in your will and trust. It is advisable to inform them of their role and the location of your digital estate plan or include these details in your broader estate plan.

Woman estate planning

A woman who is estate planning. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

Should I provide my digital executor with passwords?

Your digital executor should not require your passwords to delete, close or memorialize your accounts. But they will need to contact each account service and show proof of your death through a death certificate to receive access and permission to carry out your wishes. Be aware that the exact protocols vary by state and company.

While sharing passwords and two-factor authentication credentials with a designated person would make login and online account management easy and convenient for a loved one who is the designated digital executor, we cannot officially recommend this action as it encourages a breach of companies’ terms of use and privacy policies with their account holders.

Instead, we recommend the often laborious and time-consuming process of going through official channels and presenting ID, death certificates, etc., to companies to gain access to account data and management on behalf of a deceased or incapacitated person.

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hands

One hand on top of another. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

How can we ensure our digital assets are protected when we die?    

To ensure our digital assets are protected when we die, consider the following:

Create an inventory of digital assets: Make a list of your digital accounts and assets and the associated email or username. Do not include passwords in the list, as this is unnecessary.

Use password managers: Password managers securely store an up-to-date list of your online accounts and usernames. You can designate one person to access your password manager, which could be your digital executor. When completing your digital estate plan, you can reference your account list in your password manager.

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Create a digital estate plan: Provide your fiduciaries (Digital Executor) with instructions on managing your digital assets. For example, you may want the account closed or deleted or pictures, videos or other digital assets saved or distributed to family and friends. Perhaps you want an account to be memorialized. Keep in mind that different businesses provide users with different options for what can be done with accounts if someone is incapacitated or passes away. You’ll need to check the policies of the companies you have accounts with to see what options are available, as this could influence the instructions you leave in your digital estate plan.

Keep your digital estate plan in a safe location: Because it contains sensitive information, you may not want to list the details in your estate planning documents. However, you should reference it in your will or trust, including instructions on how to find it and who your digital executor will be. Work with your lawyer to ensure your digital estate plan fully integrates into your other legally binding documents.

These measures can help better protect your digital assets and ensure they are managed accordingly after you pass, providing peace of mind to you and your loved ones.

Elderly person's hands

A close-up of an elderly person’s hands. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

What are some digital estate planning best practices?

In addition to completing the steps outlined above, you can do a few additional things now to protect your data and accounts.

1. Consider using an identity protection solution: Identity Theft companies can monitor personal information like your Social Security Number (SSN), phone number and email address and alert you if it is being sold on the dark web or used to open an account. They can also assist you in freezing your bank and credit card accounts to prevent further unauthorized use by criminals. 

One of the best parts of using identity theft protection is that they might include identity theft insurance of up to $1 million to cover losses and legal fees and a white glove fraud resolution team where a U.S.-based case manager helps you recover any losses. See my tips and best picks on how to protect yourself from identity theft. 

2. Set up legacy contacts. Many popular online companies, including Google, Apple (for iPhone users), Facebook and Microsoft, allow users to configure their online accounts to ensure that they will be deleted or passed on to trusted individuals who can handle their personal information responsibly. See more on this below:

How do specific online platforms prepare my digital legacy?

Google (Gmail, Drive, and more)

  • Go to your Google Account settings.
  • Click the profile picture in the upper right of the screen.
  • Tap Manage your Google Account. 
  • Look for “Data & Privacy.”
  • Scroll down, and under “More Options,” click on “Make a plan for your digital legacy.”
  • Under the section “Choose who to notify & what to share,” click ADD PERSON. You can choose up to 10 people for us to notify if your Google Account becomes inactive. You can also give them access to some of your data.

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Apple (for iPhone users)

  • Navigate to your iPhone’s settings.
  • Tap on your Apple ID.
  • Tap on “Sign-In & Security.”
  • Scroll down and click “Legacy Contact,
  • Tap on “Add Legacy Contact” and follow the instructions to select a contact from your address book.
  • Apple introduced the legacy contacts system in 2021. This allows a user to nominate one or more trusted persons to control the user’s account for three years after their death. The process involves generating a shared access key with this trusted individual, who shares it with Apple after the user’s death (along with the death certificate). Once the legacy contact has completed these steps, they will gain access to the account (photos, messages, files, apps and other sensitive data). The legacy contact will also have the power to decide what happens to the data.

Facebook

  • On your computer, click your profile photo in the top right of Facebook.
  • Select Settings & Privacy, then click Settings.
  • Click Accounts Center, then click Personal Details.
  • Click Account Ownership and Control, then click Memorialization.
  • Click Memorialize account.
  • Now, you must select a legacy contact to manage your account.
  • Click Next to confirm.

Microsoft

Microsoft does not provide a direct feature for setting up legacy contacts or specifying posthumous account management preferences within the account settings. However, Microsoft has a process for handling the accounts of deceased or incapacitated users. If you have the account credentials, you can close the account yourself. If not, the account will be closed automatically after two years of inactivity.

In cases where access to the account is needed, legal representatives or family members must seek legal guidance and may need to provide Microsoft with a valid subpoena or court order.

X

X (formally known as Twitter) does not have anything in place — neither to memorialize an account nor to provide a legacy contact’s details. It also does not provide account access to the loved ones of a deceased user. At the same time, an authorized person can contact X to have a deceased person’s account deactivated after providing relevant information (ID, death certificate, etc.) For more detailed information, you can visit X’s Help Center or their policy on media depicting deceased individuals.

Instagram

Being owned by Facebook, Instagram has memorial and deactivation features similar to the above. There is no specific legacy contact, but family members and other authorized persons can contact Instagram to inform them the person has died. At this point, the profile can be memorialized or deleted. For further assistance or to request these actions, one would need to contact Instagram directly through their Help Center.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn will not disclose data or grant any access to anyone, including family members. Family members and other authorized persons can report a user’s death. If you aren’t authorized to act on behalf of a deceased member, you can report them as deceased, and LinkedIn will memorialize the profile.

Kurt’s key takeaways

Each new generation will spend more time in the digital world. However, due to the rapid pace at which this technology has been embedded into our lives, society still has not entirely caught up with what to do with all of that. But our digital assets are just as important as our non-digital ones. So, when you begin to take an inventory of your physical assets, spend some time focusing on your digital ones, too. After all, these are the ones that the next generation will remember you by.

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