When I Go Away: Getting Your Digital Affairs in Order

Nowadays when we prepare a will, we have the added responsibility of leaving instructions to our loved ones about what to do with our online things after we die. Bequeathing has grown more complicated.

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Much of our online content consists of our writings – email, text, tweets, blogs, wikis and more – and our loved ones would surely cherish some of it just as surely as we cherish special old cards and letters. The same goes for our online photos, videos, artwork and other things we’ve created.

All of this content exists in a situation unique to the digital age: it resides in cyberspace and, as such, some of it will continue to reside there long after we die while some of it will get deleted by their hosts after a period of time. But between hosting servers and online services, the content is held by third parties and is beyond our immediate control.

A few helpful advocacy groups are spreading awareness of this so-called “digital afterlife,” and an industry of commercial services is growing for online memorials, digital estate planning, post-mortem email notifications and more. As messy and mysterious as the process of getting your digital affairs in order might seem, it actually breaks down into a few steps

The first step is to inventory everything about your online life, such as your email accounts, Facebook, Twitter…everything. Use a spreadsheet or create a table in a word-processing document. For each website, list the name, URL, your username and password. Include any additional information someone might need to access each account. Or indicate if you want an account deleted.

Note if there is any money at stake in an account or if are there any business implications. For example, do you have any Second Life Linden dollars, which have a real-world currency exchange value? Do you have any money sitting in your Paypal account? Do you have an ongoing business on eBay?

The second step is to research any rights issues that may impede your heirs from accessing your accounts. When you create an account on most sites you agree to its policies or terms of service. Check each site for their policy on deceased members and the access rights of heirs. Determine what authorization you may have to supply, if any, and jot that information down on your inventory.

Some sites allow users to be memorialized after they die. Would you like that? Some sites permit account access to heirs and some don’t; those that don’t may offer instead the option for heirs to download the deceased user’s content. Some sites delete an account if it remains inactive for a period of time or if a due payment is not received, so note on your inventory if a site has time-related conditions. The Digital Beyond, an online resource for digital legacy information, compares policies for several of the top email and social media sites. When dealing with third parties, such as the sites that host your accounts, know your rights.

It may help to designate a digital executor, someone who is Internet savvy, can carry out your instructions and, if necessary, work with the legal executors of your will. Attorneys know what they know and geeks know what they know; get the right person for the job.

The third step is notification. Tell your heirs about your intentions for your digital content. You don’t have to share usernames and passwords yet, just let them know that you’ve created a document with detailed information about your digital possessions and tell them where you will keep that document once you print it out. A logical place for it would be with your will or other important papers.

Also, leave instructions about who to email about your death. Your email contact list could be lengthy, so it may be wise to print the list and cross out the names of the people you don’t want contacted.

One additional option to consider is downloading all of your online digital possessions and backing them up with your personal archives. This can be time consuming and, since online content changes constantly, you’ll need to repeat the download periodically. But it will be less of a hassle for your heirs to find and access your digital belongings.

Above all, do your research. There are many digital-legacy services emerging; some might interest you and some might not. Do you want to designate an online memorial or grieving site on which your loved ones can commemorate you? Do you want to build an online avatar-ish digital replica of yourself that may continue to exist after you die? Do you want to arrange posthumous email messages from you to be sent out? Maybe you can find a digital estate planning service that will take care of everything. Search online for phrases like “digital legacy,” “digital executor,” “digital afterlife” and similar wording.

Planning is tedious but crucial and your heirs will appreciate your considerate forethought.

5 Comments

  1. Bud Webster
    July 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    As the Estates Liaison for the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), this article is of very real interest and use to me. The SFWA Estates Project was begin as a way of tracking the heirs and representatives of deceased sf and fantasy writers, but has recently been expanded to include information on the estate plans of living authors. Thank you for giving me another excellent resource to which I can point writers.

  2. Chris Prom
    July 3, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Mike, thanks for this post. It is on an interesting topic. I wonder if you could add some information discussing the process by which people could work with established archives or manuscript repositories to work on a process for transferring materials of historical value to an institution where they might be used for research or scholarship? I think that, for particular people, this options should/could be provided by existing archives, which have done a good job of preserving non-digital personal materials, that have a broader significance.

  3. Mike Ashenfelder
    July 5, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Bud,

    Thank you for your comment. Please let us know if you have another digital-afterlife resource we can point our readers to.

  4. Mike Ashenfelder
    July 5, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Chris, you raise a very important issue. The process for transferring personal digital content to libraries and archives is still fairly new and remain under development, and each situation now has to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Our guidance on personal digital archiving
    provides some basic tips in this area.

  5. World Without Me
    November 16, 2011 at 7:25 am

    Great article Mike! Digital Afterlife Planning has become an important and upcoming issue in the digital age today. Websites like http://www.worldwithoutme.com are a great place to plan your digital afterlife.

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