MSE Team Blog on how to prepare your digital life for when you die

How to prepare your digital life for when you die

Death is something we've all got in common, and as we say at MSE, it happens – so plan for it. But what happens to your digital life when you die – from the Instagram dedicated to your guinea pig to the reams of Lord of the Rings fan fiction stored on your iCloud – is something most of us are unlikely to have considered. Here's how to ensure your loved ones can access your data when you die without having to go to court – or prevent those you would rather not see your digital footprint from doing so.

We've made every effort to make sure this blog's accurate but it doesn't constitute legal advice tailored to individual circumstances. If you act on it, you acknowledge you do so at your own risk. We can't assume responsibility and don't accept liability for any loss that may arise as a result of your reliance on it. Big thanks to Gary Rycroft, partner at Joseph A Jones & Co solicitors and former chair of The Law Society Digital Assets Working Group, for his help with the below.

Illustration of a set of traffic lights showing red.

What the law says

As you might expect for something that encompasses assets, data protection, estates, privacy, wills and more, what happens to your digital life when you die can be subject to a lot of legal rigmarole – as the three-year legal battle one woman fought against Apple to get access to her dead husband's photos and videos shows.

As I'm a MoneySavingExpert rather than a legal expert, I asked Gary Rycroft, partner at Joseph A Jones & Co and former chair of The Law Society Digital Assets Working Group, what the law says about what happens with your digital life when you die. Here's what he told me:

  • There's no Act of Parliament that specifically addresses what happens to your personal data after your death in the UK (the Data Protection Act's only applicable to 'living individuals'), but there are existing legal rules and precedents to navigate when it comes to issues around it. To address the lack of a specific Act, the Digital Devices (Access for Next of Kin) Bill was introduced in January 2022, but it isn't law yet and is unlikely to be anytime soon.

  • You can grant the right to access digital assets after you die in your will to named individuals, such as executors (the person or persons you want to carry out your will). You could even have 'social media executors' to deal specifically with those accounts. And, as usual with wills, you can choose the beneficiaries (the persons or persons who gain something) of any digital assets you have with value.

  • But you need to think about who you would want to have access to your digital life when you die as personal data is, by it's nature, private. So before granting access via a will or via the features platforms provide, you need to think about who, if anyone, you want to have access to your data and, if so, which data? Your digital footprint can reveal a lot, which is why online privacy is such a hot potato.
  • Your family or friends shouldn't need to go to court to get access to your digital life when you die as long as you make arrangements before you die – court orders have only been necessary where the deceased hasn't specified what access should be allowed by others when they were still alive.

For full help on planning for the future, see our guides on Cheap and free wills, Power of Attorney and Probate.

What you can do to prepare your digital life for when you die

Ultimately, making a will is the best way to ensure that your loved ones – and only the ones you have named – will have the legal authority to deal with all aspects of your estate when you die, including the parts of it that are digital, but there are a few other things you can do to try and make sure your online life doesn't cause too much strife after you've gone.

  1. Make a 'digital directory' – List down (on paper, so it can be found) what your digital assets are, such as blogs and websites (that you've created yourself), devices (such as phones, laptops), social media accounts (such as Facebook, Twitter), and cloud storage accounts (such as Apple iCloud, Google Drive). This will mean they can be found after you die, and may help you identify access issues you need to address.

  2. Back up the things which are most important to you – Back up files that are particularly precious to you – whether they're photos. videos, music, documents or something else to an external hard drive that you keep in a safe place. That way you get to decide who has access to it after you die, rather than a tech company.

  3. Make and record decisions about what you want to happen to your online presence – It may be that you want it to be left alone entirely, or you may want someone to be in charge of it. Handily, the Digital Legacy Association, a professional body dedicated to digital assets and digital legacy, provides a free social media will template, making it clear and simple what your online accounts are, what you want to happen to them and who you'd like to manage them. While it isn't legally binding – largely because many online platforms' T&Cs don't give you any rights after you've departed – it'll at least set out to those you leave behind what your wishes are.

  4. Appoint a 'digital executor' where you can – Some online services allow you to appoint someone who'll have the legal authority to control your account if you die. I've more info on how to do this via specific digital services in the next section.

Couldn't I just make a list of all my online accounts and passwords? There's nothing to stop you doing that, but there are two big things to consider before doing this. Firstly, it means you'll have no say over exactly who has access to those accounts. Secondly, the T&Cs of most online services say that accounts are non-transferable, so if they discover you're dead or that someone who isn't you is accessing your account, it may be locked down or even deleted entirely.

Illustration of a set of traffic lights showing red.

How to sort your online accounts for when you die

If you're anything like me, you'll want to do the quickest and easiest thing possible to try and prepare your online presence for when you're dead, so I've looked at what the biggest online services say about what happens to your account and content, and what (if anything) they offer in terms of preparing for it...

Apple

Close up photograph of a young woman using a white Apple iPhone 13.

The tech giant hasn't always made it easy for loved ones to access your account after you've died, but now you can add one or more legacy contacts for your Apple ID. This gives that person or persons access to the data in your account, including photos, messages, notes and files, after you're gone. Unlike some other platforms, Apple doesn't give you the option to have your account and its content deleted when you die, so you'd have to arrange that with your legacy contact.

It can be anyone you want, regardless of age (though they'll need to be over 13 to request access to your account when you die), and they don't need to have an Apple ID or device. To add a legacy contact, you need to be over 13, have two-factor authentication turned on for your Apple ID and have an Apple device with one of the following operating system versions: iOS 15.2, iPad iOS 15.2 or macOS Monteray 12.1.

For full info on adding a legacy contact, see Apple's website.  

Facebook

Close up photograph of a white smartphone displaying Facebook laying on a laptop.

Like Apple, the social media platform allows you to add a legacy contact, which it defines as a person "that will be able to make decisions about your account once it's memorialised". A 'memorialised account' is basically one that's set up to show you've died, with the word 'remembering' appearing next to your name.

A legacy contact is able to download a copy of what you've shared on Facebook (provided you have that feature turned on) and will have a certain amount of control over your account, but they won't be able to actually log into it. You need to be 18 or over to add a legacy contact, and the person you choose must be a Facebook friend.

Alternatively, you can choose to have your Facebook account permanently deleted, which means when Facebook is notified that you've died, all your photos, posts, messages, comments, reactions and so on will be immediately and permanently removed.

For full info on adding a legacy contact or choosing to have your account permanently deleted, visit the Facebook Help Centre.

Google (including Gmail, Google Photos, YouTube etc)

Young woman using Google Search on a laptop.

Google does things slightly differently – while it's Inactive Account Manager feature doesn't enable you to choose someone to have access to or make decisions about your account once you're gone, it does allow you to share your data – all of it or only certain parts of it – with trusted contacts. It also enables you to decide when Google should consider your account inactive and if your account and all the data associated with it should be deleted when it becomes inactive.

You can set it up to contact you via email and SMS when it thinks your account has become inactive, choose up to 10 people to be notified that your account has become inactive and give access to some or all of your data, set an autoreply for your Gmail account and whether you want your account to be deleted once it's been inactive for three months.

For full info on Inactive Account Manager, see Google Account Help.

Instagram

Smartphone displaying the opening screen on Instagram laying on a wooden surface.

Annoyingly, despite being part of the same company as Facebook, Instagram doesn't provide an easy way to decide what happens to your account once you die – it says it's against its policies to allow someone to log into another's account.

The only things other people can do once you're dead is report it to Instagram and either request that it be memorialised, meaning no one will be able to log into it or make changes to it, but posts, photos and videos will still be visible to the audience they were originally shared with, or request the removal of the account (immediate family member only).

LinkedIn

Close up on a woman looking at LinkedIn on a smartphone held in her lap.

Similarly to Instagram, LinkedIn gives few options.

Someone who can prove they're authorised to act on your behalf can contact it to have your account memorialised or closed – in the latter case, posts, articles and other content created by the account will remain visible, but access to the account will be locked, as LinkedIn says it's against its T&Cs to allow someone to access another person's account. 

Microsoft (including Hotmail, Outlook, OneDrive etc)

Close up of the Microsoft sign in page displayed on a smartphone laying on a laptop keyboard.

Microsoft doesn't have any handy way of determining what happens to your account once you've died, and says that if someone wants to access it when you're gone, and doesn't have the details to do so, they'll need to get a court order.

If someone else has the details, then they can access your account (it doesn't say anything about this being against its T&Cs) and also close it – though it would automatically close after two years of inactivity anyway.

Twitter

Close up photograph of a person opening Twitter on a tablet.

Like Instagram, LinkedIn and Microsoft, Twitter doesn't provide any way for you to appoint someone to take charge of your account, saying it's "unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of their relationship to the deceased". It doesn't allow you to set up your account to be deleted when you die either.

The only option it offers is for someone to contact it about removing your account, although that someone has to be an immediate family member or authorised to act on behalf of your estate.