What would happen if you died reading this article? Your Facebook and Instagram accounts will keep on running. Someone might ‘like’ your most recent selfie, unaware it’s your last-ever photo.
You’ll continue to receive WhatsApp group notifications asking if you want to meet for coffee next Tuesday. Meanwhile, your Gmail account will be clogging up with unread messages, and clients will be angry at the radio silence, but you can’t reply to them anymore.
A bounteous archive of photos lies locked inside your device, but no one else has the key to share them. Your software licenses remain active because you paid the direct debit this month, but that can’t go on forever, so your website might die.
Planning Your Succession
As a society, we’re reluctant to talk about death, and many of us don’t even write conventional wills. Fewer than half of US adults have written one, according to Caring.com.
If you have a blog, run a small business, or moderate a Facebook group, then your death will not just affect you and your loved ones. Many of your customers or subscribers have paid for services to last their lifetime, not yours.
So if you want to guarantee continuity of service after you’ve gone, then you’ll need to make a plan for your digital assets.
What Are Your Digital Assets?
‘Digital assets’ is a catchy label, but the reality is more complicated. It covers two broad areas:
- Access and privacy
It can also take on many forms:
- Personal assets (email accounts, chats, texts, social media accounts)
- Financial assets (online bank accounts, PayPal, Bitcoin, etc)
- Business assets (eBay, Spotify, customer orders)
- Intellectual property rights (domain names, images, blogs, e-courses, podcasts, books, and computer files)
If you want to share your digital assets with your loved ones, or if you have a small business and want it to continue in your absence. It pays to know what you can and cannot redistribute after you’ve gone.
Who Owns Your Data?
When it comes to your digital assets, you technically don’t own everything you use on social platforms. When you sign up for a tech company’s terms and conditions, it often means your data is a ‘digital service,’ which you rent on a subscription basis.
If you’ve ever created and ran an online course on Udemy, Thinkific, Kajabi, and similar platforms, then think about who owns the copyright. If you die suddenly, who will receive the income from these courses?
Each platform will have its T&Cs, so you may need to contact them individually to see what your rights are and whether any future income will go to your beneficiaries.
Death is a complicated business, so if you want to pass on these digital assets, think carefully about whether you have the right to do so.
Remember Your Passwords
Your passwords must be accessible in your will.
People don’t realize how many accounts they open over their lifetime — from online banking to Spotify, to gambling and social media pages.
All of them require a password, often with two-factor authentication synced with your phone. So if you die suddenly, without a will in place, then your digital assets may go with you.
It could mean your savings disappearing, photos being lost forever, and businesses and community forums unsure where you’ve gone.
Make Sure Your Digital Assets Don’t Die with You
No one associates the Internet with dying, but people go offline every day. Indeed, in its first eight years, an estimated 30 million Facebook users died, leaving behind their photos, chats, and comments.
While Facebook does offer memorialized accounts for its users, there’s often a lag period, where a dead person receives friend requests, gets tagged in photos, or receives messages because their green light is on. If you want to depart the Internet gracefully, then you can nominate someone to respond to these matters posthumously.
Companies have different policies to death and privacy, depending on the sector and also where you live. Google, for example, offers a deactivation service, so you can choose who to notify and what digital assets to share.
Knowing what platforms you use the most is an important first step when managing your digital portfolio.
The Show Must Go On
Your digital portfolio will cover many parts of your life, so it helps to break the process down into three simple steps.
Make a digital inventory
Write down all your digital assets, including every online account and their passwords, and accompanying phone numbers. Once you’ve done this, confirm with the people you want to take control of your accounts when you die.
For example, you may not want anyone to read your Facebook messages or private emails. If so, you can ask the platform to delete them once they receive notification that you’ve died.
Also, you may prefer to have a business-orientated person looking after certain assets, especially if there are legal or financial implications.
Write a digital will
You can choose who you’d like to receive your digital assets when you pass. It could be an individual, an organization, or both. If you decide upon a sole digital executor, then you are trusting them to look after and distribute your digital assets on your behalf.
If you’re a sole trader or proprietor, then your business assets are indistinguishable from you, and will be distributed according to your will.
If you trade as a limited liability company (LLC), then your digital assets may go to your shareholders. Make sure you know the regulations at state-level if you live in the US, or your home country’s laws, especially if it involves inheritance tax.
Store your passwords
If you don’t want to write down all your passwords, then you can pass the details to a digital storage company, who will look after them on your behalf. In that case, you will only have to provide one account and password for your executor to gain access to your assets.
Why Nominating a Digital Executor Matters
If you’re serious about protecting your digital assets, then a digital executor can ensure your content lives on after you die.
For your nominee to gain access to your accounts, they will require a death certificate, a grant of probate, and their executor’s ID.
Some of the tasks bestowed to a digital executor include:
- Managing your files, photos, videos, podcasts, and other assets you’ve created on the web.
- Taking control of your phone’s data and transferring its assets (photos, voice messages, texts) over to nominated beneficiaries.
- Maintaining your business’ online presence, which may involve ensuring your direct debits for web hosting services, such as SSL and domains, are paid.
- Collecting and transferring money, cryptocurrency, or vouchers to your beneficiaries.
- Informing social media, online communities, digital friends, and business community (where applicable) of your death.
Naming a Digital Executor
If you have a traditional will but didn’t include your online passwords or name a digital executor, then you can do so by contacting a lawyer or legal services. They will help you make a ‘codicil amendment’ on your behalf.
Here Comes the Sun
Death is an uncomfortable subject for lots of people, so many have not given their digital legacy much thought. It’s partly because the Internet is such an ephemeral medium that nothing ever feels permanent. Technology is also driven about what the future holds, not what we leave behind, so that doesn’t help matters.
Regardless of whether you’re wealthy or poor, religious or humanist – you’re going to die. By the time the human body has circled the sun umpteen times, its youth and vigor are gone. Joints ache, bones, and muscles are weaker, and the heart doesn’t beat with the same power it once did.
All of us must face this truth eventually, and when we do, we must hand the baton on to someone who has the strength to carry on our work when we’re gone.
We have some good news for you, though. If you’ve made it to the end of this article, then you have plenty of time left.