What Happens To Your Online Self After You Die?

Published May 16, 2016
Published May 16, 2016

Google Properties: Full Transfer of Rights

Websites Reflected In Girls Eye

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The trail you leave online after death goes beyond your last Justin Bieber hate tweet; sometimes there’s really important or emotionally meaningful stuff in your email account or financial service portfolio.

In order to grant others access to these items, legal authorities have procedures in place for delivering court orders to these service providers. This is most often done to transfer money from your online brokerage to an heir or to provide evidence to police if they’re investigating your death.

Even if you haven’t left a penny behind online when you go, the stuff in your private communications might have sentimental value to somebody. Parents often ask email service providers for access to their deceased children’s accounts in order to retrieve their last email exchange or look over their kids’ long-past conversations with friends.

Gmail is good about this, requiring official paperwork and some evidence you’re not just a creep who read about a death in the paper, but Yahoo! has a history of making things rough. John Ellsworth, of Michigan, had to take Yahoo! to court in 2005 to gain access to the emails of his deceased son, a Marine killed in Iraq.

Yahoo! claimed it couldn’t grant access because of the “no survivorship” clause in its terms of service, but the court disagreed and issued an order that allowed Ellsworth access.

As to the very interesting question of why your next of kin might want to keep your online profiles active and accessible, psychologist and best-selling author Carole Liebermanhad this to say:

“People save their deceased loved one’s emails and social media profiles in order to create the sense that they are still alive. If a social media profile is ‘living’ on the Internet, it makes it seem real.

After all, when we look at internet profiles of people we don’t know, it is hard to tell if the person is still alive or not, and by keeping emails from the deceased, we can remind ourselves of things they said that made us feel good, and pretend that we are still conversing with them.”

Outside Services: Plan for the Inevitable

Death Online Digital Lock

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The prospect of driving your surviving relatives to court after your death — especially over internet-related matters — is unsavory, which is why some people have made post-mortem online account management part of their regular estate planning.

Unlike divvying up your wedding china, just writing down your wishes in a will probably isn’t enough to ensure a smooth transfer of your online self to the people you’ve designated as your successors.

Most social media, email, and financial websites have pretty high standards to meet before they start handing out your password to just anybody, but it’s recently become possible to skip that hassle altogether and just make arrangements with a dedicated service such as SecureSafe and PasswordBox.

These services are mainly oriented toward personal data security online, but both offer digital inheritance services as a bonus for members. SecureSafe stores your passwords and account information on secure cloud servers, and members are given an activator code that grants unrestricted access to everything you have on the service, such as bank accounts and social media profiles.

The idea is that you can give the activator code to a trusted friend in the same way you give your spare key to a trusted neighbor. PasswordBox offers Legacy Locker, which works the same way as SecureSafe, but the activator code is in two parts and it takes both to unlock your accounts, which presumably cannot be done unless you’re really dead.


Next, watch an illuminating video analysis of Facebook, social media, and the illusion of happiness. Then, see the startling connections between social media and the seven deadly sins.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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