Ask Global Wire Associates: The Digital Afterlife

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My good friend died unexpectedly from a heart attack recently.  He was a business owner who handled all his financial and other business stuff online.  He was also an avid social media user.  When he died, his wife wasn’t able to gain access to his emails and online documents to figure out where his business stood financially.  It feels like she is being hit twice; first with his sudden death and now not being able to log into his online accounts.  I want to prevent a similar situation from happening to me and my family too.  Any suggestions on how to deal with tech after death?
– Nikhil Singh, Belfast, Northen Ireland

Death and life after death is one of those things most people don’t like to talk about, but we have to because death is a part of life.  Up until recently, family members of a deceased loved one only had to worry about what to do with tangible personal property like a house or a car.  In our ever increasingly digital savvy world, family members now have to take into consideration online profiles and accounts.  Who will have access to your wedding pictures on Flickr, your video of your family vacation on YouTube or simply gain access to your Facebook and email accounts?

Digital estate management is a relatively new phenomenon, and there are many online resources for dealing with this issue.  And because this is a pretty new phenomenon, there are not many laws on the books yet in most countries on how to handle this issue either.  We would first recommend that you consult with an estate lawyer in your area on what you can do legally in your country and how to include some form of right to digital property in your will.

Your lawyer might recommend that you appoint a “digital executor,” a person you trust who can access your complete digital inventory, including usernames and passwords for social media, email and online banking accounts and any online bills or contracts that need to be settled.  This inventory should of course be stored in a secure place that the digital executor will only have access to once you have passed away, like in an online safe deposit box, such as Legacy Locker and SecureSafe.  However, keep in mind that there is no guarantee that a court of law will legally recognize your digital executor as Internet laws are still murky in this area.

Most tech companies still don’t have substantive policies on what to do with online accounts for the deceased either.  Sure, you might have the login information to get into an account, but you might have to jump through some legal hoops with these companies due to their terms of service agreements.  Just because you have access to the deceased’s iPhone or Kindle doesn’t mean you can access their music on iTunes or e-books in their Amazon cloud drive respectively.  Google recently launched the Inactive Account Manager program to begin addressing the issue, but more should be done by other companies.

Furthermore, when tech companies have to deal with a dead person’s account, it can come off as really insensitive.  For instance, take this sad story about the case of Anthony Cannata, who committed suicide in 2011:

…Before taking his own life in 2011, Cannata uploaded a photo to his Facebook account that showed him holding a gun to his mouth. His family and friends petitioned Facebook to remove the photo or grant them access to his account to remove it after his death. But because they faced obstacles in getting access, the disturbing photo stayed online for more than a month, not removed by Facebook until Cannata’s mother sent the company a newspaper article about the situation…

Film critic Roger Ebert was an avid social media user before his death in April, and he may also be a trailblazer in digital estate management as well. His widow Chaz explained:

…Starting in about March of this year he began to give me the secret code to his Twitter and Facebook accounts and he told me to make sure I kept his Twitter account up-to-date. I thought this was strange, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. […] So when he passed away and some suggested that we shut down his Twitter account, I remembered his admonishments against it. He knew that it could be disconcerting to some people to see his picture pop up if he was no longer here, so I changed the photo. At a lovely tribute to him in the south of France during the Cannes Film Festival, Julie Sisk at the American Pavilion got 250 people together on the beach and took a photo of them giving a “500 Thumbs Up Salute.” That is the photo we switched to. (I have to admit that I still miss seeing the old photo of Roger.)…

The best thing most people can do today is to advocate that their governments invest time into creating better laws on these issues.  Nonetheless, with technology always evolving, this will continue to be an area of concern and confusion for a while.

Got a question for us? Send us an email at info(at)globalwireonline(dot)org with “Ask Global Wire Associates” in the subject line.

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