What Happens to Your Digital Data After You Die?

Deciding the fate of your digital afterlife

Digital Death

PSC0711_How ToNigel Buchanan

We're just starting to figure this one out. The companies that keep our data on remote servers have inconsistent, confusing or nonexistent policies for what happens after a customer passes away. As a result, many "digital estate" services are popping up that can help you plan ahead.

The first step in managing your digital afterlife is to name a digital executor--someone who inherits control over your online information--in your will, along with a regular executor. But don't list passwords there; wills become public documents after death and available to would-be thieves, explains Evan Carroll, co-founder of the digital-existence clearinghouse The Digital Beyond. He recommends the services of estate planners such as Entrustet, which feature password vaults as well as secure online storage for valuable files and encryption keys.

If you want to preserve your entire digital existence, use Backupify to create a searchable archive of all your files in Amazon's cloud. Every few months, download it to a hard drive, and include the hard-drive password and your Backupify password in your estate plan.

If you'd rather erase your digital life, you need help from your executor, who can use tools such as Entrustet's Account Incinerator to earmark e-mail accounts and other memberships for deletion. For accounts that require deeper purging, like Facebook and Twitter, your executor can sign up at Suicide Machine, which removes data from your profile bit by bit until it's completely gone.