Digital Life after Death: Managing a Virtual Presence

We all know that death is a fact of life and that when someone passes away, their physical presence ceases to exist. However, we live in complex and challenging times—and it’s a reality that even though someone may die, their virtual self continues to live on. On Facebook specifically, BlackBook Media’s Executive Editor, Chris Mohney, notes that there are over five million accounts that are inactive due to the death of the user—and that number continues to grow on a daily basis.

And that’s just Facebook. Think about all of the other social platforms, websites, online portfolios, and digital accounts out there. Ultimately, there are a large amount of people living virtually after their death—and while it may not be a big deal for some of the survivors of the deceased, the idea of allowing these assets to live on, unattended, for eternity after a person’s death can be unthinkable to other individuals.

As if Physical Grieving Were Not Enough…

Now, it might be easy to simply think of digital assets as one’s Facebook account or Twitter handle, when in reality it could be much more complicated than that. While it might be incredibly painful to see your deceased loved one get tagged in a picture or in a post on Facebook by someone who is unaware that they are no longer living, I encourage you to think beyond that. Today, many of us are receiving and paying bills and engaging in recurring financial transactions online. So therefore, while it could be challenging and upsetting to see pictures or view one-sided interactions that involve your loved one, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that you may have to manage or assume control of their digital assets as well—especially if the person passed unexpectedly and did not leave instructions about what should be done to these accounts after their death.

A New Area of the Law

As a survivor, and even with access to your loved one’s passwords and login information, there are many instances in our increasingly digital world where the law pertaining to these assets becomes a bit murky. It is possible for heirs to find that they have no clear authority to access or manage the accounts of the deceased. This means that you might not only be unable to control this account on an ongoing basis, but also not have the authority to keep it “alive” so to speak, or shut it down. Ultimately, this is due to a confusing and sometimes contradictory snarl of online user agreements combined with the murkiness of state and federal laws. Internet users might be restricted from transferring their loved one’s online account after their death and families can be prevented from retrieving financial data and other pertinent information that is stored in the digital realm.

Digital Footprints after Death

If you have recently lost a loved one and you are faced with handling their affairs, including their online accounts, I have compiled some tips for you to consider in this process.

First, note that if a person’s IT equipment, such as their tablet, laptop, cell phone, etc. was shared and used by other people, the process of gaining access to any files and folders saved on it should be fairly straightforward. However, if your loved one had private access, accessing this information might require assistance from a professional if you do not have passwords and login information. In this particular instance, contact the manufacturer of the equipment, i.e. Apple, Samsung, HP, etc., and they should be able to help unlock the device.

How to Identify Accounts

If your loved one did not leave specific instructions for you, and if no “digital will” was included in estate plans, here are some things you can do to identify what accounts they possessed:

  • Consider their email address. Knowing this will help you identify the email provider of their account. If you are able to access their emails, you may be able to find relevant account information for their Facebook profile, credit card usernames, and other password protected accounts. You may be able to reset their password if you know personal data about this individual, and forego having to contact the email provider for a reset directly.
  • Check their Internet browsing history. This avenue might provide insight as to the websites they frequently visited—and there might be saved login information available to you.
  • Consult bank statements. Many times digital transactions will show up on bank statements along with a relevant web address. This is very helpful in stopping recurring transactions or fees charged for subscriptions to digital platforms and other media.
  • Contact your loved one’s attorney. Ensure that no specific instructions were left with a legal professional. Digital estate planning is a very relevant topic in today’s world, and many attorneys include this as part of the estate planning process.

Achieving Digital Closure

If you have assumed control of your loved one’s online assets and wish to keep them active, then no further work is needed on your behalf. Know that many people choose to keep profiles activated as it can serve as a way to remember and relive happy moments with a person—especially if there are pictures or happy thoughts that your deceased loved one posted during their life. Seeing these profiles and remembering happy days can significantly aid in the grieving process, so if you decide to keep these online assets around, that is perfectly fine.

If, however, you decide to deactivate your loved one’s accounts, that is your choice as well. Here are some helpful links for engaging in this process. Click on the links below to get information on what each site will require from you.

Have you experienced managing a loved one’s online assets following their death? Do you have any advice to share?

Mary Ellen Wasielewski