Physical photo albums are effectively no more, networking is done remotely via LinkedIn and Zoom, digital money is held in online accounts and loyalty points and coffee card stamps are held in a virtual wallet. Even before the pandemic, our lives were played out online and, in the post Covid generation, our lives are digitalised to a degree which would not have been fathomable even a decade ago.
With so much of our lives now being conducted virtually, the consideration of what happens to your digital footprint when you die has never been more important. However, what happens to your cloud-based existence after your death is something overlooked even by those who believe that they have their affairs in order when it comes to estate planning. The reality is that, when you sign up to a digital platform, it is you and you alone who has a relationship with that platform. There is no connection with your spouse, partner or children and, accordingly, they have no authority to access or retain the information or data upon your death. The concept of a digital legacy, the digital information that remains in the ether following your death, is rarely addressed.
With this in mind, Apple has recently launched its new Digital Legacy program, arriving in iOS update 15.2. Until that change, when an individual died, there was no easy way to access their iCloud account and certainly no option of being able to unlock their phone without their passcode. Privacy is viewed (quite rightly) by online platforms and organisations as a fundamental human right and companies are ferociously loyal to protecting their customer’s information. We have all heard the tragic stories of widows being unable to access a loved one’s treasured family photos following their death. As a result, Apple recognised that there was an appetite for people to be able to nominate trusted individuals to have access to their data following their passing and, thus, the Legacy Contact concept was born. As a result of the change, individuals are now able to choose to nominate up to five “Legacy Contacts” in their phone, providing them with authority to access their data, purchases, photos, and other personal information stored in iCloud in the event of their death. Apple still require a death certificate (or other proof of death) and an access key but the process is far more streamlined than previously, when grieving relatives were sometimes faced with the need to obtain a Court Order simply to access their loved one’s information.
But despite Apple’s huge global presence, this change is only the tip ofthe iceberg when it comes to digital legacy planning. So what needs to be thought about when leaving a 21st century digital legacy?
1. First things first, think about your estate planning in general. If you don’t have a Will, consider making one;
2. If you do have a Will, consider adding a digital element, dealing with everything from your social media accounts to blogs, frequent flyer miles and virtual loyalty cards, online accounts to crypto currencies (such as bitcoin);
3. Create a list of your personal assets and ensure you add any digital assets such as crypto currency or digitally held shares. Store this alongside your Will and ensure that your personal representatives, executors or trusted loved ones are aware of your wishes. Historically an executor could go through a filing cabinet or sideboard to find financial information but with the digital age this can be like searching for a needle in a haystack;
4. It may seem wise to keep a record of passwords for your online accounts and to make these available to your loved ones or executors on a periodic basis, to be used in the event of your death. However, be aware that many countries actually consider it an offense for anyone other than the accountholder to access a private individual’s account, even if with their express permission and following their death. Instead, your executor is likely to have to contact each online service individually and request that the account is closed, so make sure they have a list of your accounts and think about what each offers in terms of ongoing maintenance or storage and what you want to happen and who you want to have permissions to access it;
5. Think about how else technology might work for you. Consider recording voice notes, messages or short videos to leave for loved ones. Choose a memorial page or use an existing social media platform to leave messages for people.
6. Don’t forget social media accounts. All have different options for legacy contacts, memorialising a profile or simply deleting it and often have the chance to download or backup all the data. Giving this some thought right now will not only leave a cleaner estate for your loved ones to manage but, also, may give some welcome reminders of happy memories.
7. Educate your family, discuss your preferences and entrust them with carrying out your wishes. We shy away from these discussions in theWestern world but being open removes the guesswork, reduces the burden and can often bring a sense of calm and contentment, both in the immediate term and following the death of a loved one.
8. Chose a “digital executor” –ideally somehow who is tech savvy and has access to your Will as one of the executors. Ensure that they understand your wishes and that you both understand the limitations of the individual platforms.
9. As with your estate planning in general, make sure your digital wishes are kept up to date. Ideally treat it as a “live” document due to the fast pace of the online world but also diarise an annual audit to sweep up any opened or closed accounts, new benefits and ever changing social media accounts.
It is human nature to shy away from discussing death and its ramifications but a little investment of time now can alleviate a significant burden for your loved ones after you have gone. Make death admin as important as life admin and ensure that you leave a digital legacy you would be proud of.
Losing loved ones and coping with grief are unfortunately a part of life. However, despite the fact that grief is one of life’s only true shared experiences, we are notoriously bad at talking about it. In honor of World Book Day (March 2nd),we have compiled our top recommended books for coping with grief and loss.