Bad news, folks: you’re going to die. In fact, everyone is going to die. Hopefully it’ll be later rather than sooner – but there is no escaping the fact that, eventually, real life has a body count that makes Game of Thrones seem restrained.
That cheery introduction aside, there is some good news: postmortem posterity is no longer reserved only for the great or significant few. If you have access to the internet while you’re alive, you will have some degree of digital immortality (or at least longevity). Your email address, iTunes account, Facebook profile, that short-lived fashion blog you forgot about – all of that will continue to live on in cyberspace even when you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
So – what are you going to do about it?
You might want all or some of your social media accounts to be deleted, you might want their privacy settings changed, or you might want them remain untouched. You might decide that you’d like certain loved ones to have access, or perhaps that you want your email account’s “I’m out of office” message be replaced with “I’m working the eternal graveyard shift”. Whatever your preference, it’s a good idea to get your digital estate sorted out… just in case.
There are a number of online services offering various options for passing on account access after death. However, many of those tools require either one-off or ongoing payments, or are only available to users within the USA.
Moreover, you just don’t know how much things may change between now and the day you put on the wooden overcoat. Forty years ago, computers took up entire floors in universities – what will be the state of technology and the internet in another forty years? Will Facebook even still exist, let alone those digital estate services?
Google offers a handy service for organising your Google accounts after death. The “Inactive Account Manager” lets you dictate whether you want your data from Google (such as Gmail or Google Drive) to be deleted or passed on after a period of dormancy. You can choose who will receive the data and how long it has to wait before activation. Google will also send you reminder emails before the time runs out.
Where there’s a will…
However, the most effective method of organising your digital assets in this technologically ever-changing world may, somewhat ironically, be that which puts pen to paper. When drafting your will, remember to add a section for your digital assets and wishes.
Record your passwords, but put them on a separate document to be stored with your will. Passwords need to be frequently changed, but you don’t want to have to update your will every time you change a password. It’s also worth appointing a trusted friend or family member as a your digital executor – just make sure you choose someone who’s technologically savvy.
Bethanie Castell, a Wills and Estates lawyer with Adelaide firm Tindall Gask Bentley, recommends phrasing your digital instructions as wishes, rather than as legally binding directions – the reason being that your executor will still be bound to the terms and conditions of the various online accounts.
“In many instances what people want to be done with their digital assets when they die is contrary to what they are permitted to do – which they agreed to when they signed up,” she said. “So it is a bit of a tricky situation for you to request that your digital executor close your accounts or download your images, for example, if they are not permitted to do.”
“Hence why expressing a wish that it be done is better – if your executor is not allowed to, then so be it.”
Unfortunately, if you’re expecting the law to catch up to technology anytime soon, it’s best not to hold your breath. According to Ms Castell, the current legislation regarding the formalities of making a will is “almost identical” to the UK Wills Act from 1837!
“It will take time, and I expect years before we see wills and estates legislation specifically mentioning digital assets – but that doesn’t mean it is isn’t important to think about digital assets and provide for them while you can,” she said.
Rage, rage against the dying of the byte. Get your digital estate sorted – then carpe diem*!