Twitter's recent announcement regarding how they'll deal with the death of their users got me thinking. What about my virtual life after death? What can I do to make it easy for my estate to deal with my online identity?
Signed, The Slightly Morbid Surfer
Photo by Lydurs.
Dear Slightly Morbid,
Although some might think you odd for contemplating your virtual affairs after death, we commend you. The more planning a person does before their death the easier things are on the executors of their estate, which are usually grieving relatives and friends. You can do quite a few things to make life easier on your family and make sure your virtual life has a tidy closure like your real one.
First, make a list of all your virtual accounts. List everything from your email accounts to your social networking profiles to one-off accounts for posting on individual forums. Once you have a complete list, it's time to go through the list and cross off accounts that you want to be lost to the sands of time and unknown to your family and friends. If you have a Digg account that you use for blowing off steam with snarky and inappropriate comments, you might consider just letting that one go dark upon your death. On the other hand if your Digg account is part of the social networking profile for your business, you'll want to make sure that information is made available in the event of your demise.
Second, take the accounts that made it through the first round of "Would I want my kids to know about this?" and create a secure database of logins.This secure database could be a physical one, locked in a home safe or bank's safety deposit box or it could take the form of a digital keyring. If the executors of your estate are especially unskilled at computers you might consider the physical option. A keyring is much safer, however, and there are many excellent solutions. We'd recommend a portable version of KeePass on a flash drive. Photo by Rbut.
Alternatively, and we'd steer you towards hard copy or a locally encrypted keyring first, you can use services like previously reviewed Entrustet and Legacy Locker to give your executors access to your accounts after death.
At this point you might be noticing a theme developing. We're not relying on the companies themselves to be helpful towards your estate executors. We'll talk more about that in a little bit. The most important thing is to provide a mechanism for your executors to interact with your virtual identity directly.
Third, include detailed instructions for how you want the plug pulled on your virtual life. You obviously want something done other than the accounts just going dark or you'd have crossed them off your list in the first step and your executors wouldn't even known they existed. Do you want your executors to make an announcement? Post your obituary? Activate a guestbook on your website, photo blog or other virtual outpost and turn it into a virtual memorial? Your fellow model-train enthusiasts, for example, at a popular model-train website might only know you as "Conductor 89", but if you have a long posting history there and have been an active part of the community, you might want them to know that you haven't just ditched them and the hobby but that your engine is seized and will be on permanent display down at the station.
Fourth, include information about the specific terms of service for the various sites regarding user death. This step is the easiest because hardly any sites have any sort of standard method for dealing with user death — most of your entries will be of the "N/A" variety. This is why we focused the first three steps on helping you decide which sites were important to you and how to help your estate executors wrap up the loose ends without needing to wrangle with the companies in question. We contacted dozens of prominent providers of social media and other popular web services and the general consensus was essentially "We don't have an official policy. If somebody contacted us with substantial proof of a user's death we could probably terminate the account." You can see why we urged you earlier to make your accounts as accessible as possible to your executors. Photo by Amanda Tetrault.
Two companies that currently stand out of the crowd in this regard are Twitter and Facebook. Twitter will shut down your account and even backup your public tweets for your family or friends. Facebook has a similar stance, with more emphasis on memorialising the deceased in light of how much personal information is shared on Facebook:
When an account is memorialized, we also set privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. We try to protect the deceased's privacy by removing sensitive information such as contact information and status updates. Memorializing an account also prevents anyone from logging into it in the future, while still enabling friends and family to leave posts on the profile Wall in remembrance.
Facebook even has a specific form for the function.
Popular email providers like Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail have significantly different policies. Gmail's policy requires the executor to provide their name, address, photo ID, the email address of the deceased, as well as an email from the deceased from their Gmail account to the executor granting them permission after death to access the account. Yahoo! Mail is locked down after death and your executor isn't getting in — unless they have the password from your keyring and can login as you. Hotmail is governed by Microsoft's policy and requires a significant amount of information and paper work — everything from photo ID of the executor to approximate date of account creation and last login — and they'll send you a CD of the account contents but not restore the account for use.
You can see, then, how the best course of action is to provide your executors with a means for accessing your accounts before the companies are aware that you're deceased. Once your status with the company switches from active user to deceased user things get significantly more complicated.
One final thing to note is areas where you want to compromise. Let's say you want your Facebook friends to know you're dead but you don't want your family to have access to your full Facebook account. In that case you should provide the contact information they need but not the password so they can contact Facebook without gaining access to your private messages and such. You'll have to decide on a case by case basis how much access you want to give your executors. This is an instance where having a lawyer execute your virtual estate instead of a friend or family member is valuable. The lawyer has no vested interest or care in the private contents of your account, merely in executing your estate to the letter of the will and documents you've provided them.
We hope this helps you sort out the fate of your virtual identify in the face of death. Hopefully as time goes on, and the demographic of internet users shifts forward in age, more companies will have clearer policies for dealing with the death of their users. Here's to health, long life and well-executed virtual estates when your time comes.