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Four things to do with your data before you die

With so much of our data and assets now stored online, how do we make sure our loved ones aren’t locked out after we die?

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Last updated: 29 July 2022
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Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Need to know

  • There is no law outlining what happens to your online accounts and data after you die
  • Your loved ones may be refused access to your accounts
  • Leaving login details and passcodes is essential

From social media profiles to email accounts and banking, much of our lives are now lived online. But what happens to these accounts and our online data after we die?

Although there are clear processes in place for dealing with our physical assets, sorting through our digital lives can be significantly more challenging for the loved ones we've left behind.

Here, we outline four important steps you can take to prepare your digital affairs before you die.

What happens to your data and digital accounts when you die?

It may come as a surprise, but there is currently no law in Australia that outlines what happens to your data and digital accounts when you die. Nor is there a legal provision that allows your next of kin to access your digital assets.

In 2020, the NSW Law Reform Commission recommended changes to the law to allow an authorised person to access a deceased person's digital assets and to clarify that NSW succession and estate laws, and assisted decision-making laws, extend to property in digital form. But these changes haven't been implemented yet, leaving it a legal grey area.

Currently, what happens to your data and digital accounts when you die depends mainly on the policies of each individual technology provider and the steps you've taken before your death to allow access for your next of kin.

Do I own my online data?

According to Associate Professor Yeslam Al-Saggaf of Charles Sturt University, the concept of 'ownership' isn't particularly useful when it comes to the online world.

"It's less about ownership and more about copyright and granting or restricting access," he says.

"Before you upload digital content such as your photographs, artwork or words to a third-party platform, you own it exclusively. But once it's hosted by a technology provider, the concept of ownership becomes murkier and what's more relevant is who can access or use the data."

Tech providers in control

Al-Saggaf explains that this access usually depends on the agreement between the user and the technology provider.

Most email providers will not let next of kin access the private emails of a deceased person

This could mean your loved ones won't be able to access your online accounts or the data you stored there, even if you'd like them to. For example, most email providers will not let next of kin access the private emails of a deceased person.

Another factor to consider is that digital assets you've downloaded during your life such as music, movies or books are often licensed for individual use, meaning they can't be passed on after your death. 

What happens to my social media accounts after I die?

Each platform has its own policy, but one thing they have in common is that they generally don't allow your next of kin to log in to your accounts or to access private information, such as your messages.

Facebook

Facebook lets users choose whether they would like their account deleted or 'memorialised'.  A memorialised account has the word 'Remembering' in front of the user's name and leaves their profile online for people to see. A nominated legacy contact can accept friend requests, change the profile picture and upload a legacy post, as well as download content you posted on your Facebook profile while alive.

Instagram

Instagram lets your family have your account memorialised or deleted, but there's no option to nominate a legacy contact to administer your account.

Twitter

Twitter has no memorialisation option, but an authorised person or immediate family member can have your account deleted after your death.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn offers a memorialisation option if certain legal requirements for an authorised person are met. Otherwise, a family member can request deletion of the account.

linkedin in rememberance account screenshot

An authorised person can memorialise your LinkedIn account after you die. Source: LinkedIn

What are the risks of not planning your digital legacy?

The thought of what happens to your Facebook profile after you die may seem trivial, but Al-Saggaf argues that failing to consider it could have serious consequences. 

"If the deceased hasn't made plans for someone to close down or take control of their online accounts, they are at real risk of identity theft," he warns.

"Cyber criminals can take out loans or commit crimes in your name, damage your reputation or even impersonate you or the executor of your will in order to scam, bully or harass people in your social network."

Cyber criminals can take out loans or commit crimes in your name, damage your reputation or even impersonate you or the executor of your will

Associate Professor Yeslam Al-Saggaf, Charles Sturt University

Failing to plan your digital legacy may also mean your loved ones can't access valuable digital assets such as important correspondence, precious photos or even financial assets, including cryptocurrencies and digital properties such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

Finally, something as simple as having your profile come up in the "People you may know" suggestions on Facebook may be upsetting to your relatives and friends after your death. 

What is a 'digital will'?

Dr Emily van der Nagel at Monash University says it's crucial that people give some thought to what will happen to their digital legacy while they're still alive. 

"A digital will or digital legacy can mean lots of different things," she says.  "It can be as informal as a conversation with a loved one and a Post-it note of login details, or as formal as a detailed document included in a traditional will."

Either way, she says, any digital will or legacy plan should give your loved ones access to important online accounts and data, as well as a clear outline of what you'd like to happen to them after you die.

No one-size-fits-all legacy plan

For some people, a legacy plan may be as simple as having all their accounts deleted, whereas others may have more specific wishes.

"It's particularly important to think about public-facing communicative platforms like Facebook", says van der Nagel.

"You might have a farewell message you'd like posted to your account after your death, for example, or you may want to have your account memorialised so friends and family can still visit your page after you're gone."

virtual deleting data on tablet

Digital assets are often licensed, which means they can't be passed on after your death.

Bequeathing digital assets

Van der Nagel says digital wills can also bequeath digital assets such as personal photographs.

"Give some thought to any assets stored online that hold financial or sentimental value and consider how you're going to ensure that your loved ones have access to these," she says.

Four things you should do with your data before you die

1. Set up a Legacy Contact (Apple) or an Inactive Account Manager (Google)

Although the law is lagging in terms of allowing your next of kin access to your digital world, Google (Android) and Apple are one step ahead – both tech giants let users nominate an approved person to access their accounts if they die. 

Activating this feature only takes a few minutes, but may save your family members a lot of hassle after your death. Many people also let their web browser (such as Google Chrome) save their passwords, so being able to log in to this browser may give your next of kin easy access to your online accounts.

Legacy Contact (Apple)

Apple lets you nominate a Legacy Contact who will be given access to your photos, messages, notes, files and more after you die. There's no way of picking and choosing what information they can see, so be prepared to give your Legacy Contact access to all the data on your account. They won't be able to access films, music, books or subscriptions you've bought with your Apple ID, nor data stored in your keychain such as payment information and passwords.

If you'd like your next of kin to have full access to all your Apple devices and data… you'll need to give them your device passcodes and Apple ID

Legacy Contacts can't access passcode-protected devices (such as an iPhone) either. Apple can restore the device to factory settings so it can be used again, but all user data will be wiped.

In summary, if you'd like your next of kin to have full access to all your Apple devices and data, nominating them as a Legacy Contact isn't enough – you'll need to give them your device passcodes and Apple ID too. 

Inactive Account Manager (Google)

Google's system works a little differently from Apple's. It only lets your authorised person access your data after your account has been inactive for a specified period of time. Once this period has elapsed, your nominated contact will receive an email informing them that your account is no longer active and allow them access to your data. Unlike Apple, Google lets you customise which data you'd like to share and to have other files or folders deleted after your death.

2. Download and organise important files before you die

If you have important content hosted on third-party websites such as email servers, social media accounts or cloud services, one way to make sure they're accessible after your death is to download them onto a device or a hard drive, and organise them into folders. 

You could make a habit of downloading this content yearly to make sure your folders stay up to date

There are two incentives to do this: first, your loved ones may otherwise find it difficult or impossible to access some of this content and, second, they may not know where important information is stored. You could make a habit of downloading this content yearly to make sure your folders stay up to date.

You may want to download videos or photos, documents or important correspondence. You can even download past social media posts and content you've shared on your accounts if you'd like to keep a record of your online presence. 

3. Make a list of all your assets, accounts, logins and passwords

Part of the challenge of sorting through someone's online presence is that your next of kin often aren't aware of all the accounts and assets you have, let alone how to access them. 

One way to make this task easier is to compile a list of all of your digital assets and online accounts. You can also include your login details and passwords, as well as instructions on what you'd like your loved ones to do with the account. You may want to include:

  • Email accounts
  • Social media profiles
  • Financial accounts (e.g. Paypal, cryptocurrency, online banking)
  • Loyalty programs
  • Gambling accounts
  • Buying and selling accounts (e.g. eBay, Etsy)
  • Online storage providers (e.g. Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive)
  • App logins (e.g. banking, email, file storage)
  • Apple ID (Apple users).

Once you've compiled this information, you can save it in an encrypted folder (and give the password to your next of kin) or write it down by hand and keep it somewhere safe or include it in your will. Alternatively, we recommend using a password manager such as LastPass, which lets you specify a digital heir who can access all your passwords after your death.

It's also essential that you give your loved ones access to your devices by writing down the PIN/passcode for every device you own

It's also essential that you give your loved ones access to your devices by writing down the PIN/passcode for every device you own. This is because many accounts now use two-factor authentication (for example, sending an SMS to a phone as part of the log-in process), meaning your loved ones will need access to the devices linked to your account.

4. Nominate a digital executor

If you're going to plan what happens to your data after you die, it's worth appointing one person – a digital executor – to handle your digital legacy, preferably someone with good technical know-how. 

You can nominate this person informally (for example, by entrusting them with lists of your login details) or formally through your written will. This person can also help you keep your list of assets, accounts and login details up to date while you're alive. 

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Stock images: Getty unless otherwise stated.