Updated: August 1, 2023
Much of what we engage with these days is digital. We file our tax returns online, look up our medical information through a patient portal, store our pictures, movies, and music digitally, keep important information in digital form on our computers or in the cloud, communicate, and shop on.
The list of possible locations for important digital information, websites we use on a regular basis, online groups we are part of, streaming services we use, etc. is often much longer than we would expect. Even the number of usernames and passwords can be overwhelming.
It can be difficult enough to keep track of your own logins. Managing your loved one’s digital affairs after their death can be especially challenging. Depending on how well the information was organized, it could take months to years for you to sort it all out.
If you are fortunate, your loved one left a digital assets memorandum and access to a document or password manager with all of their usernames and passwords with their will. In this case, when you have to take charge of or discontinue certain websites, get their digital financial records, or stop services with automatic payments, you will hopefully have everything you need to do this. If not, there are places you may need to look.
There are a number of things to consider when deciding what to do with a loved one’s digital accounts after their death. One option is converting their social media account to a memorial page if they were on Facebook or Instagram. A more delicate decision is whether to use email and/or social media accounts to announce their death. Finally, there are steps needed to discontinue each of their accounts.
These days our financial dealings, tax forms, insurance policies, and health information are likely to be in digital form in files that may be found on computers, smartphones, digital storage devices, websites, and in the cloud. Even money can be digital in the form of cryptocurrency.
While older adults may not be comfortable with technology, you will find that at least some of your loved one’s estate and business information will be stored in digital form. The Digital Estates section has detailed information about this information, how to find it, and how to deal with it.
With so many people having smartphones, email, and social media accounts, it becomes possible to announce your loved one’s death to a significant number of family and friends online or by text. However, these notifications can be impersonal. It may be best to inform close family and friends in person or by phone where emotions can be shared and some comfort provided.
You or a designated immediate family member can create a text and/or an online death announcement, depending on preference and comfort level with texting, email, and social media. There are a number of considerations when deciding whether to use digital notifications to announce your loved one’s death to other family and friends.
There are advantages to using digital notifications.
While most people have smartphones and email accounts, you will only be able to reach those with social media accounts using this method.
Consider whether digital announcements will be appropriate and effective.
Which other family and friends do you want to limit notifications to?
If you choose personal digital notifications, you need to be sensitive and tactful.
If you are not their closest family member (i.e not a surviving spouse or child) allow that person to make the initial announcement before you spread the word to others.
Be specific about whether or not the notification can be shared or forwarded.
Texts, emails, and social media posts are less secure than a phone call.
Posting death announcements and funeral/memorial details on a public platform such as a mass emailing, general/status post on social media, or in the newspaper may be the only way to ensure everyone who needs to know has been informed.
In some cases, you may wish to include extra details in a public death announcement such as the surviving family members’ names, an individual photo, the deceased’s employer, or information on where memorial contributions can be made.
Beyond the initial notification, you can use social media to provide additional information about your loved one to others.
Most people have an online presence “or digital footprint” whether it’s email, Facebook, or other platforms. People buy, stream, store, and download content and data from any number of sites, most of whom have credit card, billing, and other personal information.
When these accounts remain active and go unused after a person dies, the risk of identity theft, credit card fraud, continued automatic payments to subscriptions, and other related issues increases.
Some sites such as Facebook and Gmail may allow a user to request options prior to death from the Settings or Inactive Account Manager menu. This could be deletion after death or naming of a legacy contact.
Apple’s latest iPhone software update has a Legacy Contact program that you can set up that allows you to designate someone to access your Apple account — your photos, notes, mail, etc.— after your death. Your chosen legacy contact will get an access key that is automatically stored in an encrypted location on your phone after your death certificate is uploaded to an Apple website and reviewed by Apple staff.
When a user does not do this, it is up to their heirs to contact the individual servers to close or alter these accounts. It is important to deal with all of the web services your loved one used as soon as possible.
If you know your loved one’s username and password, it would seem a simple matter to go to the site and close the account. However, the Terms of Service (TOS) agreement for most accounts stipulates that the account holder is the only approved user and federal privacy laws usually make it illegal for you to do so. While this is true while your loved one was alive, the legality of you doing this after their death is murky.
There is a typical approach to canceling accounts, but every email provider and website have their own process, the details of which are usually found in the TOS agreement.
If you do not have their devices or this information, you may need to do an online search to figure out the steps you need to take.