Save or Delete? Planning Your Digital Legacy

| Planning for Myself or a Loved One

Man reading laptop on couch

How big is your digital footprint? For readers not familiar with this term, it means all the traces you leave behind, deliberately or not, when you use the Internet. As more and more of our lives move online, our footprints keep expanding – and they will certainly outlive us. Here’s what you should know about your digital legacy.

What’s in a digital legacy?

“A digital legacy is the digital information that is available about someone following their death,” says The Digital Legacy Association, an organization in England that raises awareness about the importance of digital assets and digital legacy planning.

The most obvious examples of digital traces include things you post publicly, such as social media content, blog posts, product reviews and comments on news articles. Your footprint also includes things you post or send privately, such as emails, direct messages on social media platforms, and files that you store in the cloud. Less obviously, your footprint encompasses the trail of your online activities: app use, email records, video chats and more.

Much of this info you probably don’t care about or want to keep. Some of it, you don’t have any control over (such as data collected by third-party trackers when you use apps, or the data that retailers collect about your web browsing habits when you shop online). But chances are you’ve got at least a few digital assets you’d like to preserve or pass on to your loved ones. Photos and home movies, for instance. In decades past, families passed down their photo albums and videocassettes. These days, many of us keep our precious memories in the cloud – perhaps only in the cloud.

Start your digital decision-making

It’s never too early to start planning your digital legacy: what you want to leave behind, as well as what you don’t.

This might seem like a chore, especially if you haven’t even thought about planning your non -digital legacy. But experts say it’s worth making the effort, if only to spare your loved ones the potential headaches, expense and even legal hassle of trying to access your digital assets after your death. Being pro-active about your digital footprint can also help guard against malicious online behaviour, such as people hacking into your account after your death and posting unwanted messages.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Much like making a home inventory, you can prepare an inventory of your digital assets, such as social media accounts, loyalty programs (points, frequent flyer miles), gaming accounts, banking and investment accounts, photos, videos, music, websites, blog posts, intellectual property, ebooks, audiobooks, etc.
  • Include assets that you have online (on websites, email services, social media platforms, cloud services, etc.) and on devices (smartphones, tablets, computers, external hard drives, other storage media, etc.).
  • When planning your estate, give the executor of your will control over your digital accounts, assets and devices (including passwords).
  • Create a social media will  to communicate your wishes. Include detailed instructions for your accounts. Facebook, Twitter, etc., all have different rules for what happens to accounts after someone dies. For example, Facebook and Instagram offer the option to “memorialize” an account, but Twitter and Snapchat do not. See “Additional resources,” below, to find guides for each platform.
  • Going forward, be mindful about what you post online – it could very well live on forever and be accessible to all of your descendants.

Additional resources

The Digital Legacy Association

  • Free guides to managing your digital legacy on social media platforms, digital devices and more.

Your Digital Footprint Matters

  • Free online tutorials about digital footprints from the Internet Society.

Digital Legacy Plan: A Guide to the Personal and Practical Elements of Your Digital Life Before You Die , by Angela Crocker and Vicki McLeod (Self-Counsel Press)

  • Published in 2019, this book offers “solutions for the practical, social, emotional, and technical aspects of your digital legacy.”


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