The digital age poses new challenges to inheritance law: what actually happens to my digital profiles, accounts, texts, and data when I die? Digital inheritance is a surprisingly complex subject with many factors. On the one hand, there are legal questions: who actually owns my data? Who decides what happens to my online profiles in the event of my death? These and numerous other questions concern not only the legislator, but also internet and online service providers.
- Overview: what belongs to digital legacy?
- Why should I sort out my digital legacy?
- What happens to my online profiles and data after my death?
- What can I do for my digital legacy throughout my life?
- How do I determine who has access to my data in the event of my death?
- How is digital estate regulated in the USA?
- Planning your estate online with the most important providers
In addition, ethical and personal questions also arise: what parts of my digital presence do I want to make available to my heirs after I die? Which person do I choose to give access rights to in the case of my death? Is “digital legacy” so important that I need to sort it out now? These and many other questions will be answered in our guide.
A “digital legacy” is the amount of electronic data that a user leaves behind on data media and on the internet when they die. These include profiles on social networks, online accounts, e-mail inboxes, cloud storage, licenses, chat processes, media, crypto currency, and more, and they’re all usually password-protected. The digital legacy is a comparatively new topic in inheritance law and poses challenges for legislators as well as consumers and relatives.
Overview: what belongs to digital legacy?
Login data, credit, contracts, message history, transaction lists, contract data, standing orders, termination provisions
Online banking, online payment services (PayPal, Google Pay), online shops (Amazon), services for crypto currencies (Bitcoin), streaming services (Netflix, Spotify), Google account, Apple account
Online profiles in social media/networks
Login data, profile information, news, uploaded media
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Google, Snapchat, Skype, YouTube, dating sites
Login data, e-mails, addresses
E-mail addresses from IONOS, Google, etc.
Software as a service (SaaS) or online services
Login data, contract details, termination provisions, uploaded media, message history, transaction lists, business-related data
Cloud services, work platforms (Slack, WordPress, etc.), social media tools (Hootsuite), finance software (NetSuite), crowdfunding platforms (Patreon, Kickstarter), YouTube channels
Online licenses and other possessions
Login data, contract details termination provisions, transfer regulations
Software licenses (e.g. image editing programs), video games (e.g. on Stream or Origin), objects, and avatars in online games
Media, documents, projects
PCs, laptops, smartphones, tablets, (external) hard drives, USB sticks, e-book readers, video game systems
Why should I sort out my digital legacy?
Living in the age of information means that you’ll leave some digital traces behind. Online profiles on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. are protected with complex passwords and encrypted to make them as secure as possible. Many of us post, comment, like, and share content so often on the internet that social media now makes up a big part of our daily communication. The average person spends an essential part of their life on the internet and leaves a lot of sensitive information behind in the form of documents, files, images, videos, and much more.
If someone dies unexpectedly, not only are they survived by those around them, but also by their online profiles and other content on the internet. Passwords are usually only known by the deceased person. In this case, it is much more difficult for relatives to properly take care of the digital legacy. This is why it is recommended to manage your digital estate throughout your life.
This is especially important when you store confidential documents online (using a cloud service, for example), or when you are conducting important correspondence via e-mail. In the event of a sudden death, it is often very important that private messages and files can be accessed e.g. by the employer. For most online profiles, for example, it makes sense to deactivate them or turn them into memorial pages. Data storage may contain important documents and files for relatives. It makes sense to set an automatic reply for frequently used e-mail addresses so that the contact people know that the person they are trying to reach has died, and they can then be referred to another person if necessary. Or the account could just be deleted, of course.
When it comes to physical data media, the digital legacy is comparatively simple, as these are simply transferred to the heir(s) as possessions. In most cases, hard drives, devices, and USB sticks are not protected by passwords or if they are, relatives often know the passwords. Nevertheless, login data and passwords should also be regulated so that relatives can access the data they contain. These can be private files such as photos and videos as well as important documents.
The digital legacy becomes more complicated if the deceased person has been conducting business on the internet. If, for example, they ran a YouTube channel that will continue to generate advertising revenue on a regular basis, the flow of money will need to be managed. The same applies to popular Instagram profiles that contain sponsored posts and through which advertising contracts were finalized. In short, digital legacy is enormously important to influencers, content producers, and other people that make money online.
Digital currency also needs to be managed. What happens to your digital assets such as crypto currency (e.g. Bitcoin) and PayPal credit after your death? It gets more complicated with online contracts for SaaS services, orders placed online that haven’t been received yet, and online subscriptions for digital content (e.g. streaming services or e-book libraries). The gaming sector is also affected since content here (e.g. items in online games) can be worth real money.
Only when you take a closer look at the subject, does it become clear how much data, accounts, profiles, and other digital possessions you actually own. If you don’t manage your digital possessions effectively, you’ll quickly overwhelm your heirs. In other words, if you are interested in regulating your possessions and not wanting to burden your heirs, managing your digital legacy is an indispensable part of it.
Ethical questions about social inheritance
The digital legacy is an important issue when it comes to inheritance law. However, bereavement also plays an important role in the death of a loved one who was very active on social media. Because an online profile continues to exist after the owner has died, it is still possible to interact with it. This is especially problematic if the people writing have no idea about the death. If the deceased person continues to appear in their newsfeeds e.g. by being tagged in posts or by people sharing content on their timeline, this can trigger negative emotions for relatives and hinder the mourning process.
In some cases, relatives don’t want the death of their loved one to be splashed all over social media. However, if the death of someone with a large social reach becomes known, their profile runs the risk of unintentionally becoming a memorial page. People may use older posts from the deceased person to express sympathy by commenting on them, which can then further intensify the mourning process for others since they want to mourn privately without the additional pressure of social media or having to moderate the profile.
A public stage online is unfortunately also a breeding ground for harassment. This is one of the reasons that it’s important for you to carefully manage your digital legacy.
What happens to my online profiles and data after my death?
Of course, nothing happens at first; your online profiles and accounts will still be there along with all the data, content, messages, and currencies stored on them. Your e-mail address will continue to receive e-mails, your subscriptions will continue to run, and your profiles and posts on social media will continue to exist. It’s up to your loved ones to take the next step.
Depending on how carefully the digital legacy has been prepared, the heirs must first obtain an overview: Where was the deceased active on the internet? Which contracts did they finalize? Which data and possessions do they have stored online? Contracts should be terminated as soon as possible and profiles in social networks should be deactivated or deleted completely. Facebook, for example, also offers the option of converting the profile in question into a memorial page, but not every social network has this function. In most cases, you’re advised to delete the profile. How easy this is depends on the network. With some providers, accounts can be deleted using a simple feature or a contact form, while others require proof of the user’s death.
If you have not left your current passwords in your will or in another document, it will be a lot harder for others to work with your digital legacy. In this case, your relatives must contact the providers directly and, after showing proof, they will be sent the respective password or can reset the existing one. In many cases, however, access to the connected e-mail account (to which the new password will be sent) is helpful.
What can I do for my digital legacy throughout my life?
The most effective step is to delete unused or unnecessary profiles and accounts and to keep your own digital presence to a minimum. Conscientious use of the internet and personal data also leads to a clearer digital legacy. In addition, it is helpful for you and your relatives if you keep a list of the relevant login data – in a safe place, of course – and keep it up-to-date. This is made a lot easier by using a password manager since you can just pass on the master password. It can also be useful to set up a security question for relevant services that only people close to you can answer.
If you make a list, you can also express wishes about what should happen after your death – such as "delete profile completely," "become memorial page," or "announce my death on my social networks with a short statement." In the case of highly sensitive accounts, such as online banking, payment services, and crypto currencies, it is highly advisable to prepare a precautionary power of attorney. This will ensure that your heirs have direct access to the assets stored online. You could also leave the login data with a notary or write it down and lock it in a safe.
Last but not least, it is important that you familiarize yourself with your provider’s terms and conditions. How do social networks deal with accounts and how complex is the deletion process? If you have finalized contracts online, you should look for relevant clauses ("death of the user" or similar) and make sure that your relatives do not inherit unnecessary debts if you die. If in doubt, switch to providers who have flexible termination provisions.
How do I determine who has access to my data in the event of my death?
From a legal point of view, your digital property will go to your main heirs unless you say otherwise in your will. However, it is then up to the principal heir to decide how to proceed with the entire digital legacy. For this reason, it is advisable to specify an appropriate estate regulation in the will or in the power of attorney. It often makes sense to pass on the digital inheritance to different people so that they can share the work. It’s important that you don’t list usernames and password in your will, since this document becomes public after you die.
How is digital estate regulated in the USA?
At the moment, there is no federal law that states what happens to a person’s online data after their death or who is responsible for managing their digital legacy. The average American has a lot of digital property and if nothing is done with it in the event of a death, it makes it more vulnerable to identity thieves and hackers. Around 2.5 million deceased individuals are targeted each year.
Since there is no law, it’s usually up to the particular service (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to decide what to do with the person’s digital estate. There is however the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which comes the closest to being federal legislation. The act allows executors, trustees, or whomever the deceased person has appointed, to have full access to their assets.
Some states, however, have their own laws that regulate digital estate, so it’s worth checking if your state has one. For example, in Idaho there’s the SB 1044 law which dictates that executors may access e-mail accounts, social networks, blogs, and short messages (e.g. text messages) unless a will or court states otherwise. States that do not regulate digital assets include Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Florida, among others.
Since the role of a digital executor is quite a new field of law, it makes sense for you to research to find out which websites might need proof of death or might not let anyone but yourself access even with your permission. Maybe you and your executor need to live in the same state? If you’re unsure, it’s best to consult an estate planning attorney who can advise you on your digital estate.
Planning your estate online with the most important providers
It makes sense to first regulate digital inheritance for the most frequently used platforms and services. Once you have an overview, you should prioritize the accounts and services that have money flowing through them; those which are paid through subscriptions, or on which money is stored digitally. Then it is advisable to take care of the most used social networks. Below we explain how some of the best-known internet service providers deal with the deaths of their users and what you should bear in mind if you are an heir to the digital estate on one of these platforms.
Facebook answers the question of what happens to a user's profile after their death in their Help Center. The network offers the possibility to convert the profile page of a deceased person into a memorial page. Facebook asks in this case to be contacted directly by relatives. You can also use a contact form to request your account be deleted. Facebook expressly points out that login data will not be provided because this violates the network’s guidelines.
Memorial pages place "Remembering" before the name of the deceased. The privacy settings determine whether others can still post on this profile page and whether content can be shared. Memorial pages no longer appear as friend suggestions. It is also no longer possible to log in to this account unless there is a legacy contact. In addition to the memorial pages, Facebook recommends that you create a group to share grief and invite relevant people.
If you want your Facebook account to be deleted after your death, you can decide that yourself. Simply go to "Settings," then to "General" and then to "Manage account." Under the item "Request account deletion" you can then clarify what should happen.
As part of the Facebook concern, Instagram's digital inheritance is similar to that of its parent company. In the Help Center, there are contact forms to either “memorialize” an Instagram profile or have it completely deleted. Instagram needs proof that the account owner is actually deceased and does not reveal the login data under any circumstances.
An Instagram account in a state of remembrance can no longer be accessed. Visually, commemorative accounts do not differ from conventional accounts, but they no longer appear “public” e.g. in the “Discover” function. All photos and comments remain for the community and remain interactive.
With PayPal, you can only cancel the account. This is because PayPal accounts are not classic bank or giro accounts and do not support regular direct debit authorizations and standing orders. Nevertheless, PayPal credit belongs to the monetary possession of the deceased and thus to the digital inheritance. If you know the deceased's login data and have logged into the account, you can contact PayPal and identify yourself as an authorized heir. PayPal will then require the necessary documents as proof before continuing to terminate the account. You should of course transfer the funds to another account first.
PayPal operates a service hotline for more complicated cases, for example if the login data of the deceased is unknown: 00 1 402-935-2050. In addition, it should be noted that PayPal is often criticized for data retention. So don’t expect all data of the deceased to automatically disappear from PayPal's databases after the account is terminated.
Google Accounts combine many services, such as YouTube and Google Mail. Google determines the accounts of deceased people to be “inactive” until further action is taken. You can use the Inactive Account Manager to determine what should happen to the account after you die. If you want to cancel the account of a deceased relative, Google offers a special contact form. It is decided on a case-by-case basis which access rights are granted to the heirs. Google refuses to reveal login data, if this is unknown to the heirs.
Bitcoin and other crypto currencies
According to a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies have officially been exempt from value-added tax since 2015. For the digital estate, however, this does not mean that inheriting crypto currencies is regulated. The tendency is that the accounts associated with the digital inheritance are handed over to the principal heir or the person decreed in the will together with the digital inheritance. The bottom line is that whoever has the login data also has access to the assets. But not every user has the relative know-how to be able to deal with Bitcoin conscientiously and effectively.
If you have Bitcoins or other crypto currencies, it is strongly recommended that you take care of the estate yourself and at least explain the subject to a dedicated main heir. Because the exchange rates of these currencies fluctuate wildly, it’s very important to be knowledgeable in this area. It also makes sense to store and encrypt the wallet.dat file on one or more secure data carriers. The easiest way is to use special wallet services to inherit the access data for these services. This is the easiest way for your heirs to manage your estate.