Navigating the Digital Afterlife

What happens to us on the Internet when we die?

There is a digital footprint we leave behind that includes our email accounts, blog posts and social media. The longer we live on the Internet as a society, our every word and action online builds a legacy of the person we are — and in death, the person we were.

Our online accounts hold a lot of items of sentimental value. Important documents are now stored in our emails, and photographs that were in a shoe box, are now stored on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Before our day inevitably comes, a plan for our ever growing digital legacy needs to be in place.

Your Twitter afterlife

Twitter offers verified family members the ability to deactivate accounts of deceased loved ones after they have provided a formal request with identification and copy of the death certificate but they will not provide account access to anyone.

After six months of inactivity, Twitter can decide whether to permanently remove accounts due to prolonged inactivity. Twitter now provides a link on your account settings page to request an archive of your account and Twitter will send you a link with the backup of all of your tweets.

Your Facebook afterlife

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Facebook is continually working on ways to deal with those who have passed on by adding a memorializing option and family access features to accounts. When accounts are memorialized, the word “Remembering” is shown next to the person’s name on their profile.

Facebook makes it easy to connect, but not necessarily to disconnect
Facebook makes it easy to connect, but not necessarily to disconnect

Until last year, Facebook only allowed basic memorialized accounts but would not allow the deceased’s family members manage the pages. After many grieving families requested more support and access, Facebook created a “Legacy Contact” option to allow users to choose who can care for their account after they pass. The “Legacy Contact” can now memorialize the account, respond to friend requests, write posts and update profile photos.

Facebook users can preemptively choose the option to have Facebook delete their account in the circumstance they die. While Facebook allows relatives to memorialize the account, they can only see information that the deceased had previously chosen to share with the Legacy Contact.

If you’re worried about the family possibly losing access to photos and other Facebook information, it’s a good idea to use Facebook’s backup feature by clicking on “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

Policies of other online accounts

Gmail and YouTube will allow email accounts accessed only if the family members meet requirements but users can plan ahead by telling Gmail who they would like to have access to their information by setting up the “Inactive Account Manager” for the account.

Yahoo seems to be one of the more strict email services about account privacy. They will not give access of accounts to loved ones and their policy is to close the account upon request. In their terms of use, they make it clear: “No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death.”

Instagram will not give access to accounts but they will memorialize the account if a family member provides proof of death via a link to an obituary or news article about the death.

Instagram allows users' families to assume responsibility after a loved ones' death
Instagram allows users’ families to assume responsibility after a loved ones’ death

While sorting out the affairs, it is best to not wait too long before figuring out one’s digital real estate. Leaving a password book and digital estate plan with your will in your safe deposit box or home safe could save your family a lot of headaches.

Online grieving and giving

Sadly, social media gives friends a false sense of initiative by expressing words of remorse on social media pages but often they don’t take a step further to genuinely help the family.

“Hash tagging #stophunger is just not the same as, like my church St. Peter’s in Olney, doing many activities to actually put food on the tables of poor families. It’s great to send a consoling thought or letting someone know you are praying for them, but to actually seeing if they need a meal or help with something is entirely different,” psychologist Dr. Richard Lanham, Jr. told LifeZette.

Dr. Lanham believes that helping friends with the grieving process requires more than a Facebook “like” but actively “asking to set up a time to come over” or inviting them out.

Alternatively, social media can help healing by creating a community of action through helping spread the word about funeral details and how friends can help support the family.

When beloved radio host Austin Hill passed away in 2015, his family setup a college fund on YouCaring.com for his high school senior son.  Fans of his show shared the site on social media and raised thousands of dollars for the family.

Another example of social media helping a family in need was when journalist and young mother Mary Katharine Ham lost her husband in a tragic accident. Social media fans pressed their friends to help raise thousands of dollars to help her daughter and unborn child on GoFundMe.

Planning For The Unthinkable

If you don’t plan how to hand over your digital estate, it could leave your mourning spouse or family unsure what to do or even how to get into all of your internet and social media accounts. Now is the time to plan the digital inheritance of your online presence.

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