What is a digital legacy?
In an increasingly digital existence, we are constantly creating digital assets. You may not have thought about your digital footprint in this way, but it's the equivalent as things such as houses, cars, finances and other tangible possessions - just digital.
This class of assets include social media, cloud-based financial accounts such as PayPal, cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, personal blogs and websites, email and messaging services, as well as the accumulation of online collections of photos, data, videos, art and music.
When drawing up a will in the event of our death our digital assets need to be considered and managed as to how they are archived, inherited or deleted. Closing your online accounts when you die is important to help protect you against identity theft, it also makes it much easier for your family to manage your digital legacy when they know what they are and what you want done with them.
Like all asset management, it is better to plan and advise people what your wishes for these digital assets are in the event of your death in advance. Think of it like a digital advanced care directive: you will need to consider who will be able to access your assets, and how to ensure that access is up to date. This is true for businesses as well as individuals and the information in this factsheet is relevant for both your personal and professional assets.
International data consistently shows that people are not planning to manage their digital assets, with low numbers having attended to their digital legacy before death. It can be a challenging or confronting subject to think about, but just like having a will, this is an important action to take to make sure your wishes and your data are respected and handled appropriately.
Now we have a better idea of what comes under the remit of a digital asset, let's look at how to manage them.
Getting started organising your digital legacy
The first step in organising your digital assets is knowing what you have, and what is important or valuable to you, whether that value is financial or personal. You can start by making an inventory or list of your assets, this can be as simple as a word document or excel spreadsheet. Think about organising each asset in a similar way so they are easy to read and find. The Be Connected website suggests using a format like this:
- Company name
- URL or web address
- Username / email address
- Account number
- Instructions for what to do with the asset
Think about what the instructions are going to say: do you want the account to be closed, archived or deleted, are there downloads that need to be saved before any of those actions can happen? Consider who is going to be responsible for your assets, and who is the right person to be handling your personal information - more about that later.
You also will need to have a password for each account so they can be accessed, but given the potentially sensitive and personal nature of your data, the suggestion is that the document is also password protected and stored in the cloud where it can be accessed from any device.
If you are using an excel spreadsheet you may want to have a page for items to keep, archive, and one for those to delete to make it even clearer. When changing passwords for different accounts or adding to your assets you need to keep the document updated so set yourself regular reminders in your calendar to do any updates.
You could also create local archives (back-ups) of online personal files. Most social media and software companies offer an option to download content so you can download and document what is on the hard drive or backup files using the same classifications as are in your spreadsheet. This will make the job of deletion or distribution of your digital estate easier when you have proactively managed content and is particularly useful for large files like images or music.
Once the data is downloaded and stored locally, give some consideration to its safety in terms of privacy. If stored on an external hard drive, for example, consider password protecting or encrypting the disk and keeping it in a secure place, or giving a second copy to a trusted friend or relative for safekeeping. For businesses, this action can be aligned with how you would approach a disaster recovery plan.
Making plans for my digital legacy
Once you have begun to make some plans, the next step is to advise others of your wishes. Think about who is the right person to be managing your digital assets. It may well be the same person who is the executor of your will, but it may also be someone who you are comfortable are capable and competent to manage these digital assets for you.
As mentioned earlier, it is worth thinking about creating the equivalent of an advanced care directive and an enduring power of attorney to encompass your digital legacy so you are able to have your digital assets organised and updated in the event you become unable to manage them yourself.
With these type of legal instruments, access is only available once you are medically deemed to be unable to manage. Seek advice from your lawyer and make sure you get the documents set up properly from the outset, have a look at the links section below for more information.
Make sure once your digital executor has agreed to a course of action that you advise them where you will store up to date passwords and access to the content and accounts they will be managing. It can't be emphasised strongly enough the importance of doing this systematically and proactively so you can get on with the pleasure of living knowing you are organised and ready for anything.
Ready, set, links and checklist.
Time for some action to get your digital legacy management underway? Awesome. Here is a helpful checklist to work through, followed by some links to give you more information and support in managing your online accounts.
- Make an inventory of your digital assets and accounts using a simple document or excel spreadsheet
- Decide what to archive, distribute to friends and family, or delete
- Decide who is going to be your digital executor and advise them of your wishes
- Set up relevant legal documentation to manage your digital assets
- Provide documentation to the executor of your will if it is a different person about your digital legacy and executor
- Download and store any libraries/archives of content such as photos, music, art, or data and catalog alongside your other assets
- Make note of who has these archives, their location and passwords/access details
- Set quarterly reminders to update passwords and account details
What will happen to my Facebook account if I pass away?
How to set up an Inactive Account Manager for your Gmail account
How to add a legacy contact for your AppleID
How to download your Google data
Example of a digital legacy plan template from Sunlife
Digital legacy tutorials from the Digital Legacy Association