“In the event of my death…”

May 26, 2010

I was talking on the phone with a computer support person a few weeks back, and we got around to chatting about what happens to a person’s digital life when they die. Things like:

  • Who has the authority to take down your website(s), turn off Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, close your blogs etc.?
  • Where do you keep the vital information required for someone to shut these things down for you and to notify your online ‘friends’ of your passing?
  • These days, should your ‘last will and testament’ specify who has the task of closing down your digital life? We have Executors to finalize our legal and financial lives, but what about our digital lives? (and remember, an individual can have many digital lives, not just one) Do you need a ‘digital executor’?
  • Is the person you nominate to look after your affairs tech-savvy enough to know what to do? And what do they have to do anyway?
  • Will your ‘digital executor’ need some sort of pre-death authority from you to contact providers and close accounts? Or do they have to provide a copy of your death certificate to the account provider?
  • If there is money in your PayPal account on your death, who has the authority to withdraw/transfer that money? What rules does PayPal have about this? What sort of authority does PayPal need to transfer your money to your estate? How does your Executor even *know* that you have a PayPal account?
  • What happens to your saved and incoming email and contacts? Have you left instructions for the person looking after your digital affairs to email everyone in your contacts list telling them of your passing? How long do you keep the accounts open? Should you keep monitoring them for a period of time before you close them down?
  • Does your digital executor have instructions for unsubscribing from email and other lists you’re on?

These are just some of the many questions that sprang to my mind. None of us is getting any younger and at some point we will all die. But these days our lives are more and more entwined with the online world, making it all the harder for those ‘tidying up the loose ends’ of our lives.

Like many others, I have several digital lives/personas/email addresses — and heaps of usernames and passwords for various online sites that I access and online services that I subscribe to. I use software for storing all my usernames and passwords; it has a master password to get into it. But who else knows this master password? Until recently, no-one!

We lived in a bushfire-prone area for 3 years. After a fire nearly razed our town and scared the bejesus out of me, I got together a physical folder of paper copies of our vital information that was stored in scattered places in a 4-drawer filing cabinet — things like our birth certificates, wills, insurance papers, house titles, passports, copies of drivers licenses, lists of bank account numbers, and critical usernames/passwords for our bank accounts, my Etsy store, my PayPal account etc. And a piece of paper with the master password for the password software installed on my computer and synced with my PDA. Yes, I know — it’s not very secure!

My husband knows the folder exists and where it is. If we both died at the same time, whoever looked after our affairs would eventually find that folder, and hopefully be able to act on it, though it could take time.

Have you thought about the preparations you can make now so that it’s easier for your family to make decisions about your digital life after you pass? Maybe someone’s already created a checklist of things to consider… If anyone knows of such a list — or can think of things to add to such a list — please comment below.

Some online services provide ways of storing your digital assets or access to your digital assets. For example:

(Please note: I have not used these services so I cannot vouch for them — I’m just passing on the details in case they are of interest to others.)

See also:


[Links last checked March 2014]


  1. Another thought … things like frequent flyer expire with you. Though if a relative/spouse/friend knows your login, they may be able to transfer your points to their/another account before alerting their airline. The airline (at least in Qantas’s case, can’t vouch for all) will close your account and not distribute any points. They are considered a personal item and not transferable, I believe.

  2. Thanks for the article,

    You can also add, Adsense accounts and the hosting information to the adsense accounts. Of course we have to watch for the autobillings that are added to our credit cards for online services. It is strange but I couldn’t find anything on PayPal that said what they do for an estate claim.

  3. I’m glad you brought this to my attention. It *is* an important issue. We’ve always needed to think about this (and lawyers say few do as many court cases show.) An online presence is even trickier. A bank account seems more tangible. You go down to the bank and talk to them if there are problems. Talking face to face can help the discussion.

    My father forgot to write a beneficiary name in a field on his car ownership papers. Despite verbal, written, and notified declarations that I, his sole inheritor, gave his car to his “wife” with no strings attached, we had to go through an expensive court case so I could hand over a used car with debt attached to a woman willing to take on those debts. My father had sworn that all was taken care of. That was almost true. One tiny, insignificant, blank field, however cost months and lots and lots of dollars.

  4. That was type of inspiring! Completely unpredicted. Now I know what I’m going to do tomorrow :)

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