Digital legacy

black Macbook near black iPhone 7 Plus and black Apple Watch

Modern life often means modern complications.  In ancient Greece, when someone died, their wealth, or land would normally transfer to their children and relatives.  To tidy up situations where this wasn’t possible, they created written wills, and today most people are familiar with them being used to distribute our assets after we die.  It was easier back then though, as people didn’t have to think about their social media accounts, where they left their music / photo libraries, or who they could trust to discreetly shut down their online dating profiles.  In the UK, around 98% of adults use online services of some kind, and over 80% of those have at least one social media account.  We live many and varied digital lives, and that’s why we should think about our Digital Legacy. 

A Digital Legacy is essentially the digital information you leave online after your death, and it’s easy to take aspects of our digital lives for granted.  Automatic social media notifications have saved lots of us from forgetting to wish someone a happy birthday, but if that person has died and their account hasn’t been managed, those notifications can be painful reminders of our loss.  The logistics of closing or changing online services on behalf of someone who’s died are often complex, as well as added stress for relatives.  Some people have even had to go to court to access family photos or videos that had been stored online.  Whether you make a dedicated social media will, record your wishes on one of several available apps, or even include it in all in your formal will, a Digital Legacy is a way of organising and controlling how you exist online, when you’re offline. 

First of all, you should make a list of your accounts and subscriptions (social media, banking, storecards, email, entertainment, cryptocurrencies, networking and so on) and a separate record of passwords.  Detail any valuable digital assets you own as well (digital music purchases, cloud-based photo or video storage, for example).  You might have a blog, or another website that you want to remain online as a resource, which will need someone to manage it, and funding to host it.  As you start stocktaking, you’ll be able to consider what you want to happen to each of them, and some items may have specific procedures that need addressing.  Once you’ve got the final list, record your chosen course of action for each so (a) you can check what options are available, and (b) your list can be referred to later on. Sunlife has information and templates in setting out a letter of wishes if you choose not to include your Digital Legacy in your will. 

If part of your digital estate involves photos, videos or other important documents that loved ones might want or need, get them backed up securely (online or physically) and make sure that the right people have access, or know how to get it. Any storage or service that requires an account is a different matter, as terms and conditions usually prevent you from just giving your login to someone else due to the security risk this poses. 

There’s a lot of inconsistency at present though.  Apple users can name one or more legacy contacts who will be provided with a key allowing access to your account after your death. (They will need to provide a copy of your death certificate, but they’ve got up to three years to view all the information and decide what to do with it.) Facebook also allows a legacy contact, but only after your account has been memorialised, a process which adds the word ‘Remembering’ to your account and turns your page into a place for loved ones to share memories and tributes. Instagram accounts can be similarly memorialised, but don’t use the legacy contact systems, while users are able to set up Google’s Inactive Account Manager to record who can access your information. You can download your own Twitter history and data, but no-one is able to access your account after your death, and account deactivation will require ID and a copy of your death certificate. The National Bereavement Service has more information on social media accounts here, as does the Digital Legacy Association.

In planning your end of life, you’ll have to think about who the best people are to help execute your wishes. Organising a funeral is going to require very different skills to those needed in managing Digital Legacy, so if the main executor of your will is the family who’s most often losing their phone or asking for computer advice, it’s probably best to name a separate digital executor. Choose someone who understands the services and accounts you’re leaving them in charge of, and talk it all through with them first to make sure they’re comfortable with the responsibilities.  Putting your digital wishes into your will (or into an added codicil) ensures they’re legally binding and complied with.  Alternatively, you could leave the information with your solicitor, with your digital executor, or another safe place, as long as people know where to find them.  Remember though, if they’re not in a will, there’s no legal obligation for your instructions to be followed.  

In the midst of dealing with their loss, it’s easy for family and friends to overlook the online aspects of a life which need addressing. Posthumous identity theft is a very real issue with go into more details about here, but as with any end of life planning you do, taking the time to assess and plan for your Digital Legacy allows you to take the weight off your family and friends and stay in control of your online life at the same time.  And if you want to make sure someone deletes your internet history, that’s fine too. 

Useful links:

Digital Legal Association: 

The Guardian: Upon my death delete how to plan your digital legacy

The National Bereavement Service: Homepage

Sunlife: Digital Legacy Guide 


Ataloss: Blog – How to prepare your digital life for when you die