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Why (and How) to Plan Your Digital Legacy

Planning for your digital legacy is essential for one key reason.

So much of the modern world is digital. We pay bills online, watch TV online, save photos online, and shop online. Nearly three-quarters of Americans are active on social media. But none of us will live forever. Research estimates that in less than 50 years, there will be more deceased people on Facebook than living people. So what happens to our online accounts after we’re gone? That’s where a digital legacy comes in.

What is a Digital Legacy?

A digital legacy is all the information about you available online after your death. Most of us immediately think of our social media profiles in this regard. But your digital legacy includes everything you’ve done online. Some of the things it often includes are:

  • Social media accounts
  • Email accounts
  • Contributions to forums, listservs, and other online communities
  • Online access to banking and investment accounts
  • Online access for utility accounts, such as your electric provider
  • Cloud storage accounts containing personal files
  • Customer accounts on shopping sites like Amazon and eBay
  • Accounts on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+
  • Websites or blogs you’ve created or contribute to
  • Gaming profiles
  • Any other online accounts you may have

It’s not just your accounts, either. Digital assets are also part of your digital legacy. Digital assets are anything purchased, stored, and/or available on digital services. The photos you have on Google Drive, the digital movies you bought on Prime Video, the music you purchased from iTunes, and the ebooks you have on your Kindle are all part of your digital legacy. And they’re things your family will have to manage after you’re gone – if they can.

Why Is Planning Your Digital Legacy Important?

In a technical sense, you already have a digital legacy. Everything you leave behind online once you’re gone is part of it. But planning ahead is essential for one very important reason: If you don’t, your family won’t be able to access any of it. Providing a death certificate could help them get some financial information or have certain accounts shut down. However, for most accounts, if you don’t make a plan to provide access, your family can’t legally get in. If you haven’t provided the information to access your iCloud account full of photos, for example, they will be lost forever.

If you don’t plan for your digital legacy, your family won’t be able to access any of it.

Just like a will can help ensure all your physical assets go to the person you want to have them, planning your digital legacy can make sure all your digital assets go to the right person. Whether it’s sentimental photos you want to share, a cryptocurrency wallet with some monetary value, or an extensive music library, you can make sure your family can access all the digital things you own.

In addition, planning for your digital legacy will let you specify exactly what you want to happen with each account and digital asset. Maybe you want your Facebook page to become a memorial where friends and family can share memories. Or maybe you’d rather your Twitter profile doesn’t stick around to become the thing people remember you by. Perhaps you want your children to have access to your Google Drive full of family photos but want your Netflix subscription canceled. Planning ahead can make sure that your family knows what you want them to do with your digital information.

How to Plan Your Digital Legacy

Making a plan for your digital legacy can seem like a daunting task. Especially if you’ve been on the internet for a while, you probably have a lot of accounts and digital assets. There are probably even some you have entirely forgotten about. However, planning your digital legacy doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You don’t have to do it all immediately. Take it step by step and put together a thorough plan over time.

Determine the Scope

The first step is to determine what exactly is involved in your digital legacy. List out all your accounts and all the digital assets you own. Check your bookmarks, your browsing history, and the apps installed on your computer, smartphone, or tablet to help out. Make it as complete as you can, but don’t stress too much about getting everything right away. You can always update it later if needed.

The first step to plan your digital legacy is to map out the scope by listing your accounts and digital assets.

Decide What You Want

Once you have an idea of what your digital legacy includes, start thinking about what you want to happen with each account. Do you want your Facebook account deleted or memorialized? Who needs access to your bank accounts? Should your blog stay up or do you want it deleted? Make a plan for which data should be deleted and what you want to pass on.

Consider Backups

These days, many of us store things like family photos in the cloud. It’s a great option to store a lot of digital files without having to worry about losing them if your computer crashes. But it also makes it harder for your family to retrieve those files after you’re gone. For important or sentimental files, consider copying them to a USB flash drive or an external hard drive and storing it in a safe place as a backup.

Declare a Digital Executor

The executor for your will is the person you name to carry out the wishes in your will. A digital executor is the person you name to carry out your wishes in regards to your digital legacy. This can be the same person as your will executor, or you can name someone different in your will. Whoever you select as your digital executor, you will need to provide instructions and access for them.

Grant Access with Legacy Contacts

Many online accounts now offer options for “legacy contacts.” Legacy contacts allow limited rights or access to other people once you’re gone. Facebook lets you set up a legacy contact to make some decisions about your Facebook account. Apple lets you set a legacy contact for your Apple ID to make similar decisions about your Apple information. Google lets you set an Inactive Account Manager, who will get access to the Google account information (including Gmail and YouTube) you choose after your account has been inactive for a specified amount of time.

By setting legacy contacts up in advance, you make it easy for your digital executor to carry out your wishes. Not every service offers legacy contact options, though. For those, or if you want to give more options than legacy contact features allow, you will need to provide access in a different way.

Grant Access in Other Ways

Some accounts, such as Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Twitter, don’t grant access in any way. If you want your family to be able to access your accounts and digital assets, you will need to provide the usernames and passwords for your account.

You can do this in a document included with your will. But listing out all the usernames and passwords for every account can be a chore. And if you ever change your password, you will have to remember to update it in your will. But you can make the process simpler with a password manager. A password manager will keep your passwords secure and save you from having to remember all of them. But it will also make it easy to provide access to your digital executor. By simply providing the username and password of your password manager in your will, your digital executor will be able to access everything.

Planning for Digital Peace of Mind

Planning your digital legacy is a great way to make wrapping up your affairs easier on your family. But it can also provide you peace of mind. With a plan and instructions set out for your digital legacy, you will know for sure that the things you want deleted will be deleted and your family will have access to everything you want to pass on. You can rest easy knowing that no matter what happens, your online life will be taken care of.

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