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  • Lisa Jevens

Managing your e-life, after life

This spring Google announced a new feature that lets you specify what will happen to your accounts (Gmail, YouTube, and other Google properties) after a period of inactivity, including the option of leaving them to your heirs.

For many people, this raised the question, “What will happen to my digital assets, email and social media accounts when I die?” says Evan Carroll, of and coauthor of the book, “Your Digital Afterlife” (New Riders, 2010).

“The computer you use on a day-to-day basis really is a treasure trove,” Carroll says.

If you have ever signed up for anything online, from a Facebook account to email to eBay, you have digital assets, probably accessible only by you. Carroll says you need to make provisions for them just as you would for your tangible goods.

Here’s why: If you let your passwords pass with you, your heirs will be left with a legacy in limbo—or worse, lost altogether. Most online and social media companies, photo sites, and email providers will not give out a deceased person’s login information, even to their legal heirs. With the exception of Facebook, the most they will do is delete the account for you, which means everything in it is lost: pictures, messages, videos, contacts. You probably want to make it easier for your heirs to be able to log into online financial accounts, and view any important emails that pertain to them.

“Ask yourself, do your heirs even know what digital things you have, and do they know where to look?” Carroll says. “Also, do they have the ability to access the information and do they have the legal permission to do so? The legal community is just starting to address this issue.”

For example, your heirs might want your contacts to notify them of your death and arrangements. Conversely, if you want to keep all your online info private, planning ahead allows you ensure that too.

There is another reason to make sure your online accounts are managed after your death. After a period of inactivity, email accounts are easily hacked, and your contacts can get eternally spammed. There is nothing more unnerving than seeing the name of a deceased friend or relative pop up in your inbox.

When considering digital asset planning, first assess what you have, Carroll says.

“Most people have four types of digital assets: all the files that you store ( text files and photos), email accounts and contacts, social networking, and business.

This includes doing business on eBay.

There are various ways to tackle this. Easiest and cheapest is to write out a list of your accounts and passwords. (Do not put this in your will, as that becomes public, Carroll warns.) Do not leave it in plain sight next to your computer. Lock it up in a fireproof safe, or in your safety deposit box, and don’t forget to update it. Or set up Google’s Inactive Account Manager (see sidebar) as Carroll say she has done, to have your information transferred to your heirs.

There are also online services that will help secure your digital assets. They’re not free, but they’re more comprehensive, easier to update, and more secure than a paper password list. They allow you to store files and photos, and will transfer the information to your heirs if you die or become inactive.

Two of the top companies are LegacyLocker and SecureSafe, which Carroll and his co-author discuss in their book. Here is how some popular social media sites handle digital assets before and after a death.


Google’s Inactive Account Manager lets you tell Google what to do with your Gmail messages and other Google services such as YouTube if your account becomes inactive over a period of time you specify. You can choose to have your data deleted, or you can select trusted contacts to receive your data.

Inactive Account Manager is not easy to find. In Gmail, click the gear in the upper right corner, then Settings, then Accounts. Under Change Account Settings choose Other Google Account Settings, then scroll down to Account Management, then click Learn More and go to Setup.


You cannot set up postmortem instructions ahead of time. If your heirs do nothing, it is true you will live forever on Facebook. When someone dies, Facebook encourages family members to “memorialize” the person’s account. This does not delete the account, but restricts it. No one can log in and no friends can be accepted. Friends can post their remembrances to the timeline if the person’s preferences allow edit.

Your heirs can request that Facebook delete the account if they provide a death certificate and proof they are the heir.

Go to Facebook Help (click in that little gear at the upper right) and type “memorialize” for instructions.


It is true that there is a Twitter app called LivesOn that allows you to tweet after you die. If you would rather your Twitter account fall silent, the company will deactivate it after your heirs provide the account username, a death certificate and proof of their relationship to you. Simply go to Help and type “deceased” in the search bar for instructions.

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Prime Time senior living section on July 11, 2013.

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