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 Loki fan fiction stored on your iCloud – is something most of us are unlikely to have considered. Here's how to ensure loved ones can easily access your digital assets when you die.
We've made every effort to make sure this blog's accurate but it doesn't constitute legal advice tailored to individual circumstances. We can't assume responsibility and don't accept liability for any loss that may arise as a result of your reliance on it.
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. For example, back in 2019, a woman from London finally won a three-year legal battle with Apple to get access to her dead husband's photos and videos, including thousands of pictures of their daughter growing up.
As we're MoneySavingExperts rather than legal experts, 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 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, but given it's been sitting at second reading since May 2002, it isn't likely to become law 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 person or persons who gain something) of any digital assets you have. This is the case whether the assets have actual or just sentimental value. Think about which data you want to go to which person.
- 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.
What you can do to prepare your digital life for when you die
Ultimately, making a will is the best way to ensure that the people you want to benefit from your money and possessions (including digital ones) do so. Here's how to make it easier for them...
- Make a 'digital directory'. List your digital assets on paper, so it can be found. This includes any blogs and websites you've created yourself, devices (such as phones, laptops), social media accounts (such as Facebook and X, formerly 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.
- Back up the things which are most important to you. Back up files that are particularly precious to you on an external hard drive and keep it in a safe place. This includes photos, videos, music, documents and anything else. That way you get to decide who has access to it after you die, rather than a tech company.
- 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. This makes 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.
- 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. Get full help on how to do this via specific digital services.
Couldn't I just make a list of all my online accounts and passwords? There's nothing to stop you doing that, but it's not very secure, either while you're alive or after you're gone. It could mean anyone who gets hold of the list gets access. Plus most online services say that accounts are non-transferable, so if they discover someone who isn't you is accessing your account, it may be locked down or even deleted.
How to prepare your digital life for loss of mental capacity
Similar to when you die, the issue of handing over access to your online accounts in the event of you developing dementia, suffering a stroke or serious accident, or losing mental capacity in some other way, is thornier than a barn full of brambles. This is why I'll again to defer to Gary Rycroft:
In theory, an unrestricted Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) for property and finance should enable an attorney to have access to manage the donor’s digital assets. However, I suspect any tech company holding digital assets may seek to hide behind their T&Cs, which protect the privacy of their users.
So for that reason, it would be optimal for a person making an LPA to expressly mention digital assets in it, and give clear and unequivocal permission for the LPA to cover digital assets. That way any concerns by tech companies would be rebutted.
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...
With Apple, you can add one or more legacy contacts for your Apple ID. This gives those contacts access to the data in your account, including photos, messages, notes files and apps, after you're gone. Your legacy contact(s) will need your access key and death certificate to be able to gain access.
Unlike some other platforms, Apple doesn't give you the option to have your account and content deleted when you die, so you'd have to arrange that with your legacy contact, although it'll be deleted three years after they first request access anyway.
Like Apple, Facebook allows you to add a legacy contact, which it defines as a person that "will be able to make decisions about your main profile once it has been 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. This includes being able to share a final message on your behalf, update your profile picture and cover photo, and request your account be removed, 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 someone lets Facebook know that you've died, all your posts, photos, 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)
Google does things slightly differently. While its 'Inactive Account Manager' feature doesn't enable you to choose someone to have access to or make decisions about your account once you're dead, 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 do a number of things when it thinks your account has become inactive – contact you via email and SMS, notify up to 10 people and give them access to some or all of your data, and set an autoreply for your Gmail account. Alternatively it can delete your account. For full info, see Google Account Help.
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. They can either request that your account 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 its removal (though this can only be done by a verified immediate family member or executor).
With LinkedIn, someone who can prove they're authorised to act on your behalf can contact it to have your account memorialised or closed when you die – but access to the account will be locked if it's memorialised, as LinkedIn says it's against its T&Cs to allow someone to access another person's account.
Microsoft (including Hotmail, Outlook, OneDrive etc)
Microsoft doesn't have a 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, 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.
X, formerly Twitter
X (until recently called Twitter), doesn't provide any way for you to appoint someone to take charge of your account when you die. The only option it offers is for someone to contact it about removing your account, although that has to be a "verified" immediate family member or someone authorised to act on behalf of your estate.