Although you have no say in how others remember you, the existence of memorial Web sites underscores the importance of deciding what to do with your digital persona when you are no longer around. If you leave it to chance, you may have little control. The legal system has yet to establish a coherent system governing the inheritance of digital assets. Only six states have laws that allow next-of-kin access to those resources. The lack of legislation means that the ownership of your profile can revert back to the company who owns that site after your death unless you specify otherwise, Dye says. (Forthcoming legislation may soon prevent anyone except a court-appointed person or a designee of the deceased to gain access to that individual's online information.)
Dye says she is working on inserting a clause into her will spelling out exactly what she wants done with her digital life after her death. “My online profiles are a part of who I am,” she confesses. Whether or not you adjust your will, Cahn recommends creating a locked paper document or secure database that has passwords and security questions for your e-mail, banking and other online accounts so friends and family can access or deactivate your profiles, notify e-mail correspondents of your passing, and take care of any financial concerns.
For any accounts you have on Google, you now have a more automated option. In April, Google added a free service called Inactive Account Manager (nicknamed “Google Death”) that allows you to decide what happens to your Google-operated accounts after you die.
One option is to delete these accounts. Another is to have Google allow a designated person to view them if you do not log on for a specified period, ranging from three months to a year. Before Google authorizes this transfer, however, the company will send reminders to alternative e-mail addresses and cell phones in one last attempt to get in touch. “Inactive Account Manager allows people to be proactive with their digital assets,” says Nadja Blagojevic, a manager of privacy and security at Google. “It's important for the people you leave behind.”
You cannot similarly decide the fate of your Facebook profile. In this case, once you die, the choice lands on your friends and family. They can leave the page as is, open to friend requests, Facebook advertisements and photo tags. If someone can provide an obituary or death notice, Facebook will memorialize the page, meaning that no new friends will be added and the person's name will not appear in news feeds. Loved ones can also request that the deceased person's page be deleted.
In most cases, your heirs and close friends will not be in a hurry to wipe out all digital traces of you. And although you could try to instruct Google, among others, to erase you from the Internet, making the digital “you” invisible is probably impractical, and even if it were possible, doing so may deepen the pain of those you care about. It makes more sense, then, to construct a path so that those who love you can follow at least some of your online trail and gain access to the digital deposits they might need or want.
This article was originally published with the title Managing Your Digital Afterlife.