What Happens to Your Data When You Die?

Nancy Anderson
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After death, most people are no longer leaving boxes of handwritten letters or volumes of paper journals, but they are leaving behind digital assets. Many people are dying or will soon be dying, leaving behind decades worth of cloud-saved files, photographs, social media accounts and other digital imprints. Figuring out how to respectfully deal with the post-death digital trail is an issue that plagues legislators, tech companies and individuals.

In the absence of a plan for dealing with digital legacies, many surviving family members are forced to access their loved ones' digital files through their loved ones' personal computers. These computers often have saved passwords that allow survivors to get immediate access to accounts and files. However, in most cases, accessing an online account or files saved on a harddrive can be seen as an invasion of privacy.

In many cases, accessing an account with the permission of the account owner breaks the terms of service set by the company that owns that email or social media account. For this reason, if family members do not have the passwords to a lost loved one's account or if they are unable to access it from that individual's personal computer, they must turn to the admins of that company and request their loved one's passwords. In most cases, these companies are not willing to share this information.

Some companies have protocols in place to deal with the accounts of deceased users. For example, Facebook allows survivors to request to have the account of a lost loved one deleted or memorialized, but in order to do either, the individuals making the request must prove that they are authorized representatives of the deceased person, and they must submit a copy of a birth and death certificate. Other companies, such as Microsoft, are willing to give surviving family members a disc of their loved one's emails, with the right supporting documentation.

From a legal perspective, digital assets are not treated like physical ones, and that means that they cannot be dispersed in a will. Instead, digital assets are in legal limbo. Five states have a law giving executors power over these assets, but in most places, the issue has not been addressed. There is also murmuring that companies will eventually change the definition of authorized user to include executors and estate representatives.

In the absence of clear laws or consistent protocols, individuals concerned about their digital presence after death or what happens to their digital assets need to make their own plans. Since digital presence is important to life, individuals should also focus on leaving clean digital legacies that appropriately represent their strengths. They should also write a clause in their will addressing their digital assets, and they should leave passwords with an executor or loved one along with directions on which digital files should be deleted or shared.

When writing your will, consider your digital imprint and what would happen to it after your death. Make sure that you address your digital assets in your will. Alternatively, consider hiring a company to carry out your wishes for your digital files after your death.


Photo courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net



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