Going through a loved one’s photos, books, music collection and possessions after they’ve passed away can be an emotional process. But with any luck, the deceased will have left a will detailing what should happen to smaller possessions such as childhood toys and their record collection, as well as major assets like property or investments.
But not many people think about what will happen to their digital assets when they die.
We live our lives online these days and future generations won’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. As well as using social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we also buy digital music and video files, and back up our digital lives to various cloud services. On top of that, many people do their personal admin on the web too, managing everything from their bank accounts and investments to energy and telecoms accounts online.
Dying Matters, a coalition of companies which aims to persuade people to talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, is encouraging people to plan their ‘digital legacy’. It reckons only 3 per cent of us have considered what will happen to our online lives when we’re gone.
‘When we write a will, it will almost certainly include instructions of what will happen to our physical assets such as property, savings and valuables, but is unlikely to say what we want to happen to our digital assets,’ says Graham Jones, commercial director at SunLife, one of the companies which makes up Dying Matters, ‘In fact, many of us may not even know how many online accounts and assets we have, let alone think to pass on details on how to access them and what to do with them, leaving family members with the stress of trying to piece it all together when we die.’
The Law Society is urging people to leave clear instructions about what should happen to their social media and other online accounts after their death. It suggests you write a list of all your online accounts to make it easier for your family to sort out when you’ve gone. The list should be stored in a safe place such as lodged with your solicitor. However, don’t be tempted to include usernames and passwords in your will, as your will becomes a public document after your death.
When it comes to social media, most accounts can be deactivated after death. The family, or executors of the will, generally need proof of the death (either a death certificate or a link to an obituary) as well as the account name and associated email address.
As well as deactivation, Facebook offers a couple of other options: accounts can be ‘memorialised’ or managed by a pre-nominated ‘legacy contact’.
Memorialising an account means the existing content and friends list can’t be edited while notifications such as birthdays, friendship anniversaries and memory reminders are stopped.
If you opt for a legacy contact, your timeline will be changed to let people know you’ve died. Facebook does this by adding the word ‘remembering’ ahead of your name: for example, ‘remembering Joe Bloggs’. The legacy contact will be able to do certain things, such as accept friend requests, pin posts to the top of a profile page and change the late person’s profile picture or cover photo.
It’s worth pointing out that while your physical music or book collection can be easily passed on to loved ones, the same doesn’t apply for digital goods. When you buy e-books or mp3 files, you’re usually only buying a license to access them. This means that they cannot be passed on when you die as the license dies with you.
Emma Lunn is a freelance personal finance journalist