The certainties in life are death and taxes, right? Now that tax season is over, it’s time to turn your attention to the other one.
People often arrange for who gets their money, real estate and physical belongings when they die. But what about the digital assets we accumulate in a lifetime—photos, social-media accounts and more?
If you don’t have your digital matters sorted—or even just spelled out in a memo—you will be burdening your loved ones. They will have to spend their grieving hours on customer-support calls, trying often fruitlessly to gain access to your accounts and files.
Nancy Gourlie lost her partner of 18 years, Burton Sellers, in February. The pair were avid photographers, and he had thousands of nature and family photos in his iCloud account.
After his death, his account began receiving emails saying that payments for iCloud storage were past due and warning that his account would be closed. His credit cards had been locked posthumously, she said, so the automatic payments weren’t going through. When she tried to log in from her computer with a saved password, it didn’t work: Mr. Sellers, who had dementia, apparently changed his Apple ID password and didn’t tell her.
“The thought of losing all those photos made me sick,” she said.
Ms. Gourlie, a 78-year-old resident of Willow Valley Communities in Lancaster, Pa., turned to Susan Culbertson, a fellow resident who heads the retirement community’s Apple club. Ms. Culbertson checked Mr. Sellers’s iPad and saw that it was signed into his Apple ID, making it a “trusted device.” She was able to go into the iPad’s settings and change the password.
You can ensure your heirs don’t lose access to photos, social-media posts and other important digital assets by doing the following:
Designate a contact for your passwords
It’s not enough to keep a list of account passwords, because you might forget to update it. A password manager lets you designate a contact who can be granted access should you die or become incapacitated. Here’s how to set up contacts at each of the major password managers:
Bitwarden. You can designate a contact for your Bitwarden vault and decide how much access to give that person by setting up emergency access. You must pay $10 annually for a premium plan or $40 annually for a family plan of up to six members.
1Password. People can create a family account with up to five family members for $5 a month. Customers can share login credentials with various family members. People can also opt to store physical and digital copies of an emergency kit containing all of their account information. You can give a copy of it to someone you trust.
LastPass. This password manager has emergency access. It allows users to designate a contact who can request access to your passwords and notes after you die. The feature is only available to customers of LastPass Premium ($36 a year) and LastPass Families ($48 a year).
Dashlane. People who use this password manager can create a secure note containing their credentials and share it with someone else.
Name a legacy contact for online accounts
To avoid locking out your loved ones upon your death, be sure to designate legacy contacts for your cloud-based accounts, and notify those people. That way, your heirs can more easily retrieve photos and other important documents you might have stored.
Apple. You can designate a legacy contact from the settings on your iPhone, iPad or Mac under Password & Security. You can name more than one person.
When you’re gone, legacy contacts can access photos, messages, notes, files, apps and device backups without having to know your Apple ID password. They can’t access movies, music or books you’ve purchased or any data stored in your iCloud Keychain, such as payment information, passwords and passkeys.
Your digital next of kin will need to provide Apple with your death certificate, along with the 88-character alphanumeric access key that’s generated when you name them a legacy contact. You can notify someone via Messages when you add them as a legacy contact, and if they accept, they automatically have a copy of the access key stored in their Apple ID settings. To find the code, contacts can first tap their name, then Password & Security and then Legacy Contact. (If you’re named a digital contact, it’s a good idea to also make a copy of the access key and store it in a safe place.)
Google. You can decide what to do with your Google account and data when the former becomes inactive after a chosen period. Go to myaccount.google.com, tap Data & Personalization, then scroll down and select “Make a plan for your account.” From there, you’ll be directed to Google’s inactive account manager tool where you can name contacts and choose which data—emails, photos, documents, etc.—you want to share with them.
Make plans for your social-media accounts
For many people, social media is part photo album, part diary, part repository of personal and professional contacts, which might be important to heirs. When Kay Shanaman lost her husband in 2020, she couldn’t figure out how to close out his Facebook account. Former students of the retired high-school teacher continued to post birthday wishes well after he’d died. She finally gave up.
Facebook. The Meta Platforms Inc.-owned social network allows legacy contacts to look after your main profile if it’s memorialized. (Instagram profiles can also be memorialized, but there is no way yet to name legacy contacts.) Legacy contacts can be added to Facebook accounts by going into the memorialization settings under Settings & Privacy.
When you’re gone, legacy contacts can download a copy of what you’ve shared on Facebook, update your profile and cover photos, as well as request the removal of your account. They won’t be able to log into your account, read your messages—or add or remove friends.
LinkedIn and Twitter. These platforms don’t offer a way to name legacy contacts but survivors can request the removal of a deceased person’s account on both Twitter and LinkedIn.
Talk it through
Finally, have a conversation with family about your digital assets, says Ms. Culbertson, the Willow Valley resident who teaches fellow residents how to use Apple devices. It’s not enough to simply pass along login credentials to survivors.
“Do you want your accounts to be memorialized? Do you want them to be deleted? Do you want people to be able to download your data?” she says. “Make your wishes known.”
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on April 22, 2023, and written by Julie Jargon. Illustration by Jon Krause.
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