How to deal with your online accounts before you die

Take these steps to make sure your family and friends know what to do with your online accounts after you die.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
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Erin Carson
4 min read
Photo of a gavel and a last will and testament.

Estate planning now includes assets you have online.

Getty Images

Preparing for your own death probably isn't on your Top 10 list of free time activities. But if you don't handle the chore, you're passing the buck to family and friends.

Everyone, regardless of their online presence, has to handle some tasks to ensure their affairs are mopped up properly. You've got to prepare a net worth statement, designate power of attorney and specify what happens to your mortal remains.

Then there's an added layer of complication for folks with lots of online accounts. And who doesn't have a ton of online accounts these days? Here are five things you need to do so your selfies won't outlive you.

Decide if you need a digital executor

You might choose to appoint a digital executor. This person would be someone other than the executor for your real estate and financial assets. The digital executor might be responsible for disposing of email and social media accounts. No one needs to see the drippy love letters you wrote before you got married or the questionable posts you made to Tumblr in college.

"Few people want their estate representatives to know everything about them that's contained in an email account," said Karin Prangley, a wealth manager at Brown Brothers Harriman who specializes in estate planning.

In other words, if you don't want to leave your loved ones with a final, embarrassing revelation -- yeah, we all have them -- put someone in charge of your email, social media and digital files.

Inventory your accounts

Question: How many online accounts do you have? Answer: More than you think.

Password manager Dashlane estimates its average user has about 90 accounts, so you probably won't be able to immediately think of every one you've created over the years. Take the time to dredge them from your memory -- even that Starbucks account you opened because it was your birthday and they offered you a free drink if you became a rewards member.

Once you've done that, make a list. First, jot down your account usernames and the corresponding passwords. Then, specify what you want to happen to those accounts. You might want your Facebook page to become a memorial account. Or maybe you'd rather disappear from the internet. (Note that thanks to privacy laws, your executors might need various types of legal documentation if they want to have your accounts deleted or memorialized, depending on the platform's terms of service.)

Whatever you choose, says estate planner Jim Lamm, be clear about how each account should be handled.

Obviously, you'll want to store your list in a secure place that only trusted folks know about.

And find out what the balance on your Starbucks account is. Someone is going to want that caffeine.


Click here for "Logging Out," a look at death in the digital age.

Get the proper documentation

Creeped out by the thought of writing a will? Get a grip.

A standard will probably won't cover digital assets. Work with an estate planner to make sure your executors will be able to carry out your wishes if they need to show proof to a service provider that they're your official representatives. The companies need this in order to have confidence what an executor is asking for is in line with what you wanted.

"If you have data in the cloud right now, service providers are requiring some kind of evidence of your consent to turn over the data to your family members or fiduciaries," Lamm said.

Back up your files

Of course, you can skip the cloud and its potential legal complications if you buy a big hard drive. It won't cost you much: A terabyte, enough to hold around 17,000 hours of music, will set you back about $60. Then you can download all your precious digital assets to it.

Getting into your hard drive will be a lot easier for your executors than dealing with the legal niceties of getting into your Google Drive account, Lamm said.

And you'll want them to be able to get at your files. Why else did you take all those exotic vacation photos?

Don't forget to update

Just because you've written out all your wishes doesn't mean you're finished.

Each time you add an account, add an entry to your records. Make note of accounts that you've set to autodelete after a period of inactivity. (Google gives you that option. Twitter might remove your account after prolonged inactivity.)

Be mindful that autodelete instructions will supersede whatever instructions you leave in your will, said Anne Coventry, estate and trust lawyer at Pasternak & Fidis P.C., in Washington, D.C.

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