In today’s modern society, much of our time is spent interacting with technology gadgets. In the process, we set up multiple online accounts, most of which contain our personal and financial information.
At the same time, we create an online personality. By posting a photo on Instagram, updating our status on Facebook, or creating a playlist on Spotify, we leave a digital footprint in the vast realm of cyberspace.
Unfortunately, upon our deaths, all this information is left unattended, floating around the cyberspace aimlessly. Our death does not equate to the death of our online identity; all this information lives on.
Fortunately, depending on the platform, there are certain settings we can change to manage our online accounts after our death.
Digital Estate Planning
A “digital estate” refers to all the assets that you have in digital form at the point of death, including online accounts, social media profiles, photos and videos. “Digital estate planning” refers to the process of organising your digital assets and deciding for what should happen to them after your death.
There are good reasons for planning your digital estate. In a will, you express your intentions pertaining to the distribution of your assets and property upon your death. This is applicable to digital assets as well. It is advisable to settle the status of your online accounts and digital information after your passing.
This makes it convenient for your family members. They will know what to do with your accounts, manage any potential key personal and financial information, as well as avoid online identity theft.
Generally, you may appoint a trusted contact/executor of your own and give them access to your passwords so that they can manage or deactivate your accounts when you’re gone. If you think that your online information is of significance, you may even express your intentions in a will.
If you fail to express your intentions, your family member or friends can make a request to the company that holds your information to have it deleted/removed.
Google has options for deleting your Gmail account, where no one will be able to access that email or username. Alternatively, you can activate the “Inactive Account Manager” option for your entire Google account, including your Gmail account.
This is a way for you to share parts of your account data to a trusted contact if you’ve been inactive for a certain period. Some of the data that can be shared, apart from your Gmail account, include your YouTube account, contacts, and Google photos.
If you have been inactive for a long period of time, the trusted contract will be notified, and the set of data which you have previously selected will be sent to him or her.
For your Outlook account, if you do not sign in to your account at least once in a one-year period, Microsoft will presume your inactivity and close your account automatically. After your death, it is safe to say that your account will be deleted.
In terms of ownership of the account, Microsoft states that you cannot transfer your account to another user or entity, and this presumably applies to a deceased user’s account.
Unfortunately, for Yahoo! Mail, these options are not available. Yahoo! will not grant any access to the contents of a deceased user’s account after you die. If a user dies without leaving any instructions, his/her relatives must email the website to close the account.
Social Media Accounts
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the biggest archivists of our content. Content may be posted by ourselves, or by others. Some of this content is viewable to the general public and should be properly managed.
Facebook has various policies and procedures regarding a deceased person’s account. Certain settings can be set by yourself to have your Facebook account deleted upon your death. Once Facebook is informed of your death, the account will be permanently erased, and no one will be able to view your profile again.
However, if you fail to do this before passing away, an immediate family member or executor needs to provide a copy of your death certificate to close your account after you pass away. If your death certificate is not available, they need to submit one document to provide proof of authority to close your account, including; the power of attorney, birth certificate, last will or estate, as well as one document to provide proof that you have passed away; an obituary or memorial card.
Transforming your social media accounts to memorialised accounts
Alternatively, your account may be transformed into a “memorialised” account. A memorialised account allows friends to view and leave posts on the profile but prevents the memorialised page from being referenced on Facebook as an active user.
It also prevents individuals from logging in to your account. When your account is memorialised, the word “Remembering” will appear before your name. This memorialised account feature is also present in Instagram.
If you wish to have your “memorialised” Facebook account managed by someone, you may select a relative or close friend, and appoint them as your “legacy contact”. This gives them access to your profile after you die, and they may update photos, post status tributes on your timeline, respond to friend requests and even download an archive of your information.
However, legacy contacts may not, remove or change past posts and photos, read your messages or remove any friends.
Other social media platforms, such as Twitter and Snapchat, have more limited processes in place. For Twitter, a family member or authorised person may request via email to have the account deactivated. Twitter does not allow anyone to access your account regardless of their relationship with you.
No such policies exist in Snapchat. However, in light of being able to save pictures in Snapchat’s “Memories” section, a request to have the account deactivated may be permitted.
When you sign up for an iCloud account, you agree that your account is “non-transferable”. Any rights to your Apple ID or content within your account are terminated upon your death. However, this can be prevented by sharing an iCloud storage plan with your family.
The iCloud storage plan gives a certain amount of memory space to store photos, videos and documents to everyone. You may then allow your family members to access your information.
For Dropbox, the process is limited. If you do not leave your password or account name with a relative or close friend, or share any Dropbox folders with them, they would have to send Dropbox a request in order to retrieve your information.
Other Online Accounts
Streaming accounts have their own rules as well. Generally, anything that you purchase by way of licence is non-transferable and dies along with you. This includes music from Spotify, where the music that you download into your playlists dies along with you.
This also applies to the gaming platform, Steam. As per the licence agreement, you can’t leave your account to a close friend or relative to enjoy the games that you’ve bought. Even if you have expressed your intentions in your will that you wish to transfer your account, it would be an illegal move upon your death.
For Grab Singapore, post-death account procedures are not mentioned on its website. However, it is suggested that your next-of-kin write in to the company to request the deletion of your Grab account.
Online Banking Services
Bank accounts are probably one of, if not the most important online accounts you will leave behind. These accounts contain financial information and have a monetary value attached to it. Currently, banking services do not provide procedures regarding their online banking applications. Presumably, the standard procedures in relation to the death or incapacity of an account holder would apply.
Generally, once the bank is aware of an individual’s death, the bank will be entitled to freeze the Account. The legal representative of the deceased estate or the surviving joint account holder (if your bank account holder was held jointly) needs to approach the bank to close the accounts.
Different procedures regarding the deceased’s account will apply depending on the nature of the ownership of the bank account.
For a single account, family members or the legal representative can apply for release of funds from the bank by filling an application form, consent of beneficiary form, and indemnity form. The following documents need to be attached as well; applicant’s IC and the death certificate.
For a joint account, the surviving account holder should provide the bank with a copy of the death certificate of the deceased, as well as the deceased’s proof of identity (e.g NRIC) to close the account. The balance of the account is likely to be awarded to the surviving account holder once the account is closed.
Grant of Probate
It is also advisable to apply for a Grant of Probate, which authorises an executor to deal with the deceased’s estate according to his/her will. If a person passes away without a will, beneficiaries should appoint a representative to apply for a Letter of Administration.
Upon authorisation, an Administrator, who is appointed by the court, will distribute the assets to the rightful beneficiaries.
Talking about death is always an uneasy and uncomfortable subject for many individuals. Most individuals who have online accounts and social media come from the younger generations.
Though the likelihood of death in the foreseeable future is low and thus of lesser consideration for the time being, death is bound to occur. In contrast, the Internet exists forever, it is therefore important to be protective and responsible for the data that we leave behind.