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How to take control over your digital legacy

Do you have a plan for what will happen to your digital self when you pass away? Here’s how to put your digital affairs in order on Facebook, Google, Twitter and other major online services.

There’s no easy way to put it: We’re all going to die. And once dead, why would we care about our social media presence? Sounds like the least important thing to consider at that point. But in fact, it isn’t.

If we don’t plan what to do with our digital footprint, it will be up to our loved ones to go through that painful process. On top of their grief and the usual paperwork, they will have to deal with Facebook, Twitter, Apple, or whatever accounts you owned. Above all, they’ll want to protect your memory – but also possibly avoid notifications about your birthday.

Less than 15 years ago, this was not really an issue. Sure, there were people on MySpace and other localized social networks, but the internet was still young enough and small enough not to care about our legacy (or anything at all, really).

But now, managing the digital legacy of deceased relatives and friends is a growing issue, and in a few decades platforms like Facebook might even have more profiles of dead people than of live ones, mainly as its user base starts to stagnate. And, let’s be clear, we’re getting old, and Gen Z has its own piece of the web.

How should you manage your digital legacy?

It is a morbid process. But it won’t take more than an hour to do, and then there’s no more thinking about it. Well, maybe go back to your legacy contacts every five years just to make sure the person you chose is still as close as they were when you gave them the power – and responsibility – to decide what to do with your virtual afterlife.

1.     Facebook

If you have an account on Facebook, you have certainly shared a lot of pictures, thoughts, and moments that are dear to you. Facebook allows two different paths for when you pass away:

You can choose to have your account deleted after you’re gone. This is a request you make to Facebook and that no one will be able to change. However, this requires that someone send a picture of your death certificate to Meta that informs them of your passing. Ensure that someone close to you know this is what you want and what they need to do when the moment comes.
You can choose a Legacy Contact who will manage your memorialized account. This must be someone you trust and who is willing to manage your profile, tribute posts, pictures, etc. While for some people, this can be emotionally distressing, others may find comfort in it, so have this in mind to be sure you choose the right person.

Whether you decide to have someone look after your profile or have it removed, talk to the person you think could do this. Take into consideration the grief they will be going through and ask if they think they’ll be willing to do it. Moreover, this contact needs to be able to access your death certificate and, of course, they need to have a Facebook account as well.

2.     Instagram

Despite Instagram being part of Meta, just like Facebook, Instagram users are not able to decide on the removal of their accounts. An account can be memorialized upon request of an authorized person or family member in possession of a death certificate, but no one will be able to manage your pictures, videos, or privacy settings.

That said, Instagram’s Terms of Use are clear: You own your content, but you give permission for Instagram to use it as they see fit as long as it is on the platform. While no one can delete your account after you pass away, Instagram can still argue their right to use your content.

3.     Google

Most likely, you use many of Google’s services, including Gmail, YouTube or even Google Drive. And if you have an Android phone, these accounts are no doubt filled up with important documents and memorable pictures.

To prevent your important information from becoming inaccessible, you can enable Google’s Inactive Account Manager. Google will now be able to detect your account inactivity and issue a downloadable link to a contact you have previously chosen. The period of time determining your inactivity is decided by you, just like what data can be downloaded.

Finally, you will also be able to decide whether your account should be deleted three months after it has been shared with your legacy contact. This, however, implies that all your content will be deleted, including YouTube videos or blog posts, a reason not everyone might want to enable this option.

Alternatively, if you decide not to leave any instructions, your family members or legal representative will be able to request account deletion and even some data or funds. Google indicates that their decisions will continue to have your privacy as a priority and each case will be reviewed individually.

4.     Microsoft

Microsoft does not provide any specific tool that allows you to manage your legacy, nor for a family member to request account removal. Microsoft will, however, delete accounts in compliance with a court order.

The only exception applies to customers in Germany, whose legal successors can contact Microsoft’s customer support and, if in possession of a death certificate and other documents, request the account be closed.

3.     Twitter

Twitter does not have any policy in place to let you decide what you want to happen to your account once you pass away.

Instead, it will allow a family member or authorized representative to contact Twitter and request the removal of your account. The platform will request copies of your death certificate as well as the requestor’s ID card and possibly some additional information.

6.     Apple

Apple introduced in 2021 the possibility of choosing a Legacy Contact. This feature is only available for people over 13 and has a few technical limitations: You must have an active Apple ID on a device running at least iOS 15.2, iPadOS 15.2 or macOS Monterey 12.1. Your Apple ID also needs to have two-factor authentication enabled.

If you fit the requirements, you can do this process on your device by tapping on the Apple ID icon in the Settings menu, selecting “Password & Security” and, finally, selecting Legacy Contact. This will generate an access key in a QR code format that you can send via Messages or print and hand to the person you chose. When the day comes, they will be able to request access on the web or directly on a iOS or macOS device. Apple will also request a death certificate before granting access to the account.

7.     PayPal

While the process for most classic offline banks is quite standardized, people are less used to dealing with digital accounts on services such as PayPal. As with the other platforms, PayPal is only able to take instructions from an authorized executor or administrator of the deceased’s estate to close an account and transfer funds. Apart from the death certificate, the legal representative will also have to have proof of their position through a living will or state-issued documentation. Finally, the remaining balance can be transferred to another PayPal account or issued as a check.

Your digital life is like a family album

So this is the thing: We’ve been seeing how technology develops and rapidly have become accustomed to it. We post pictures online without giving much thought – or any thought at all – to what that means. Because we can take hundreds of pictures in a day without having to pay any extra for each time we press the shutter button of our phone’s camera, pictures have lost some of their value. But in reality, once we die, those are the images by which our acquaintances, friends, and loved ones will remember us. So consider taking some extra steps in parallel to organizing your digital legacy:

Back up your data Social media platforms are services run by companies, and companies one day might have to close and could wipe all their data in an instant, sometimes even by mistake.
Make a second backup of important documents and pictures you really don’t want to lose.
When talking about best password practice, we always say that you must never share your passwords with others and we continue to take that strong position on password sharing. However, planning the management of your digital legacy is a situation where it might not only be desirable to break that rule just once – you may feel that doing so is necessary. As Microsoft suggests, this is what you should do to provide for digital legacy planning, and most other online services are clearly more easily managed by your digital executor if they simply have access to your accounts’ credentials and can log in as if they were you.
Review your legacy contacts every few years, and make sure your backups are working and in order. Having all this information organized might also come in handy while you’re alive.

FURTHER READING: How to prepare and protect your digital legacyIs your personal data all over the internet? 7 steps to cleaning up your online presence

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