How To Start Planning Your Digital Legacy

Today, the typical internet user spends almost 7 hours a day online - more than 40% of their waking life. Or in other words, the internet has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. It's how we shop, pay bills, and connect with friends and loved ones.

No one likes to think about what would happen if we become incapacitated or pass away, but we still plan for those events. However, few people stop to think about what happens to their digital footprint once they no longer have the means to control it.

To quote The Social Network, a 2010 movie about the founding of Facebook, "The Internet's not written in pencil... it's written in ink." So, when we stop using the internet for the final time, we leave behind a permanent record of who we were through personal data, photos, memories, posts, and social media accounts.

Unfortunately, while your digital footprint stays put, it's not always accessible to the people you trust. Privacy laws and lack of a paper trail often make our digital lives one of the most challenging aspects for our loved ones to manage.

But there is a solution. Having a digital legacy plan in place can go a long way to alleviating this issue for our families.

What Is a Digital Legacy Plan?

Before the internet, we would keep our important documents and favorite memories as physical objects. We'd have scrapbooks, photo albums, letters, document binders, postcards, and certificates of ownership. This meant that if we passed away, our loved ones simply had to find where we stashed these items. However, today, many of these items are stored online and locked behind secure accounts, making them far less accessible to the people we trust.

A digital legacy plan is essentially a digital 'will' or a set of instructions that detail what should happen to your digital assets and digital presence if you pass away. This can include an inventory of your online accounts as well as your wishes for those accounts. For example, you might want your Facebook account memorialized, or you may want it closed.

Digital Assets vs. Digital Presence

When creating your digital legacy plan, you must think about both your digital assets and your digital presence. So, what's the difference between the two?

Digital assets are digital items you have purchased or consumed during your time online, including movies, music, podcasts, games, and books. It can also include things like websites, blogs, domain names, and access credentials to platforms like PayPal and Amazon or financial and utilities accounts. Companies have varying rules about ownership and how ownership can be passed on, so you must familiarize yourself with these rights when you detail what should be done with your assets.

By contrast, your digital presence is your online identity. It's all the social media activity, messages, photos, videos, and emails that make you, you. Unlike digital assets, digital presence can be deeply personal and often carry a lot of sentimental value to your loved ones. Therefore, you may want to ensure that your friends and family members can access elements of your online presence so that precious memories aren't lost.

Creating a Digital Legacy Plan

Many websites today have processes to help manage your digital legacy. For example, some social media platforms allow loved ones to memorialize an account or shut it down. When a Facebook account is memorialized, it looks much the same as other pages but has the word "Remembering" in front of the person's name. You can start this process by nominating a legacy contact in your settings. Some people will also be relieved to learn that this feature keeps your messages private but allows other aspects of your account to be open.

Other social media platforms have different rules. For example, Twitter doesn't allow you to control another person's account after their death but will allow you to close it down.

Critically, if you want your loved ones to be able to access your social accounts, they will need to provide certain information like your name, proof of death, and evidence of their relationship to you. So, you should make sure your nominated contact knows this in advance.

In 2021, Apple also released a 'Digital Legacy" feature that allows you to nominate a person who can access your accounts and data after you pass.

For your digital assets, it's a good idea to create a list of as many as you can think of. And you'll also want to create a list of any access codes, usernames, and passwords your family members will need to access those assets.

Lastly, you should review your digital legacy plan periodically. For example, you might find that some digital assets become obsolete over time or that your trusted legacy contacts change as your relationships evolve.

Why It's Important To Have a Digital Legacy Plan

Digital legacy plans are really about streamlining your online estate, so your loved ones experience minimal friction after you pass. Being faced with roadblocks at a time of emotional turmoil adds unnecessary stress, and digital legacy plans help alleviate this.

This friction can take many forms. For example, your family might share a Microsoft, Google, Apple, or Amazon account for some things. You might have many mobile devices on a family plan. The utility accounts for your house might be in your name. These are all things your family will need access to and, in many cases, immediately. And, of course, they might want to access precious photos and videos so they can be stored somewhere safe for the future.

Final Thoughts

While planning for your passing might seem morbid, it's something humans have been doing for millennia. Most people ensure their loved ones know how to handle houses, cars, finances, and other important possessions via a will. A digital legacy plan is simply an extension of this. It's a way of recognizing that much of our identity and assets have shifted into the cloud. And in an increasingly online world, our loved ones need a little extra help navigating our wishes.

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