How to prepare your digital life for your inevitable death

What will happen to your photos and passwords?

casket at funeral
If this guy weren’t dead, he would really want to know what's happening to his Facebook profile.Depositphotos

No one likes to think about it, but one day, you’re going to die. (Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.) You probably know where you want your money and other physical possessions to go, but you have a lot of digital assets to pass on too. You need to plan for the future of those accounts right now.

"It's impressive to me how many times people don't recognize the extent of digital assets that they own," says Mark Parthemer, Managing Director and Senior Fiduciary Counsel at Bessemer Trust. "With many clients, they're concerned about financial things, but they need to protect the sentimental assets too, like photographs."

To start, Parthemer says, make an inventory of the digital items that your family may want to access after you die. That includes financial accounts, but also any photos and videos stored online, digital notebooks, email, social media accounts, your phone, and even your contact list. (How else will they break the news to all your friends?)

In some cases, you can just print out the requisite information—like that contact list—and call it a day. Other times, you’re dealing with an account that contains so much data, or undergoes such frequent updates, that a simple paper copy won’t cut it. Here’s what you need to do now to ensure trusted family members can access your information after your death.

Designate trusted contacts

Some services have built-in features that let you pass data off to surviving members of your family. You identify your trusted loved ones, and these digital services will give them access to your account—but only under specific circumstances.

For example, Google's Inactive Account Manager allows you to decide what happens to your account after it's languished for a certain amount of time (the default setting kicks in after three months, but you can adjust that as you see fit). If your account remains inactive for that period, then your designated contacts—you can select up to 10 people—will receive permission to download whatever data you allow in advance.

In my case, I’ve given my wife access to an archive of my calendar, contacts, email, photos, YouTube videos, and documents stored in Google services. If you want to keep certain data private even after you pass away, you can choose to provide access to less information—say, only your contacts and photos. Once you’ve decided what to share, you can set your account to delete itself after your trusted friends obtain that archive.

Similarly, Facebook allows you to designate a Legacy Contact. After you die, your profile will become a memorial, and the Legacy Contact has permission to write a pinned post for it, respond to new friend requests, and update the profile picture or photo. They can also download a copy of your Facebook data. However, this person cannot log into your account or read your messages.

Other services may contain content that you don’t specifically own, but that you have a license to access. Examples include the movies you bought on iTunes, your video games from Steam, or the books on your Kindle.

“Typically, those licenses expire on passing, but not always,” says Parthemer. “Apple, for example, has been generous—a surviving spouse or family member may continue the iTunes account with the Apple ID of the deceased person.”

That said, your living relative can’t merge your old license with their own account, which makes things cumbersome. If the service in question offers a Family Sharing feature—like iTunes, Steam, Kindle, and others do—it may be easier to just enable that. With Family Sharing, your family member’s account will have access to your content, whether you’re alive or dead.

Prepare to share your passwords

Unfortunately, not all companies have features that allow you to pass on your data. For the ones that don’t, or that don’t offer granular enough controls, your best bet is to speak to an estate attorney about giving authorized access to your next of kin.

Merely scribbling down your passwords on a sheet of paper isn’t always enough. In many cases, your relatives are still legally prohibited from accessing your account without express permission. Thankfully, 41 states have adopted laws that allow you to declare who has access to what data—as long as you “include a provision in your will or revocable trust and your power of attorney,” says Parthemer. “Have a conversation with your advisor team to decide on the scope of the access.” Maybe you want them to see who you emailed, but not the contents of your email. Let them access just enough information to uncover any assets you may have forgotten about, like an old cryptocurrency wallet.

Now that your will gives your loved ones permission to access your accounts, you’ll need to provide some of those passwords. This is more difficult than it sounds, says Parthemer. “Passwords are constantly being changed, new accounts are being established, so it's very difficult to keep an up-to-date list of all of one's accounts and passwords. But there are companies that deal with password storage and administration of digital assets post-death.”

LastPass, for example—a password manager we've recommended many times—allows you to send specific passwords to another user in the event of your death. Just click Emergency Access in the extension's sidebar to set it up.

Before you start these preparations for the sweet embrace of death, take some time to think about the people to whom you can entrust your digital life. In Parthemer’s words, “Be thoughtful about who will be in charge of these digital assets. There are some families, for example, where person 1 is going to be the individual appointed to administer the financial assets and other things, but that person may not be technology savvy. So maybe person 2 should be appointed to be the digital assets fiduciary.”

When you make your estate plan, you need to designate who should run what so you play to everyone’s strengths. A good estate attorney can ensure the language is crystal clear, so your friends and family won’t have to do any extra legwork during their time of grief.