5 minute guide: What to think about when planning afterlife messages

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Three important reasons to plan and organize your digital afterlife

Emily Baxter from www.awayforabit.com offers her views on why it’s important to plan a digital estate as part of a featured post on PassingBye. Read the full feature on PassingBye…

We spend a lot of time online. If recent reports are to be believed, Australians spend close to one day a week online while the Brits are estimated to spend one day every fortnight on the same activity. In the US, it is thought that the average user spends closer to two days per week either on mobile or digital media.

Which ever way you look at it, that’s a lot of time spent online which is spent communicating with others on social, commenting online, banking, shopping…. Then there’s the plethora of accounts and communities that a user signs up for. For instance, people on average have at least two email accounts and depending on the research you read, about twenty five apps that they have downloaded onto their phones. That is a significant number of companies and communities that individuals are engaging with.

Given the general trends of more time spent in the digital universe, it’s worth thinking about the footprint you will leave behind when the time comes. Here are three important reasons to consider planning and organising your digital afterlife.

Ownership of digital assets are not automatically transferable to next of kin

Who actually owns digital assets is a key yet unclear issue in today’s estate and legacy planning as a recent news story with Apple highlighted. There was a hoax story a while ago in which Bruce Willis was suing Apple because he wouldn’t be able to pass his extensive iTunes collection on to his children when he died. The story was bogus but as Paul Gordon, Associate for Finlaysons, a national law firm in Australia points out, the issue is real.

“Often when you ‘buy’ music online what you are actually acquiring is a licence to listen to it, rather than buying the song itself,” Gordon points out. “That licence may come with restrictions and may not be passed onto your next of kin when you die (i.e. a ‘personal’ contract). These issues aren’t going to go away and I’m sure will come before the courts in the coming years.”

Digital providers will not just hand over access to personal data or information of the deceased unless there’s a legal requirement to do so as their position is to defend the privacy of the account holder, in death as in life.

Damin Murdock, Principal Lawyer of the MurdockCheng Legal Practice based in Sydney suggests that when writing up a will, individuals remove any ambiguity about how they want their digital information dealt with upon their death.

It’s also recommended that you identify a system for storing sensitive information confidentially that can be passed on to next of kin. There are many options for doing this, involving legal representation, an online service or both.

Digital memories don’t last forever

It’s important to plan to capture memories and conversations as part of digital legacy and estate planning. Our new digital identities mostly exist in the hands of third parties and for many these days, memories reside in email and social media. Our mementos of events are digital photographs, or a casual comment posted online. These seem fleeting in the moment but can quickly gain significance as life changes occur. While we assume their digital nature makes them always accessible, they may not end up being everlasting.

Recently I wrote about how I’ve changed email accounts from Caramail to Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail for social use – in the last fifteen years. Unfortunately, when trying to look back at past conversations, some of these accounts are now lost or no longer accessible which means that a large swath of my history is lost, not only to myself but to anyone who I might have passed a curated version to.

Today Facebook and Gmail might seem immortal, but there’s every reason to question whether they’ll still be around in a decade. Or whether they’ll make it easy to uncover these past memories. Their purpose may be entirely different.

The speed in which technology platforms change means that it’s important to have a way of archiving conversations as they happen. While I’m not suggesting that every single personal email conversation must be stored, this recent experience has highlighted the value of a system to continually capture personal messages and notes.

Digital gives you the opportunity to shape your legacy

The explosion of digital services means that there’s a wealth of opportunity for every person to shape their legacy and the way that they would like to be remembered. For instance, services offering the ability to leave personal messages for next of kin to communicate last wishes or words of comfort, can provide tremendous support. It’s a reminder that they were loved.

At the same time, people often have an insatiable desire to find out more about loved ones who have died, even if they believe they know them well in the first place. It’s common to hear stories of mourners piecing together strands of a life story in the same way they would a jigsaw puzzle by looking through old photos or having conversations with friends or family of the person who has died.

A digital afterlife plan which includes memories and mementos, photos or correspondence can help next of kin, family and close friends to remember the good times and provide support in what will likely be a tough, emotional time.

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This feature was originally posted on PassingBye.

How to keep passwords confidential while bequeathing them to your next of kin: digital services

 

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Copyright: Asif Akbar

A legal representative such as a solicitor or lawyer can act as a third party confidant in helping you plan a digital afterlife and privately keep your passwords on file for next of kin. There is also an increasing number of digital afterlife and secure online password services that will help you assign important information such as bank or legal documents to nominated beneficiaries as well as release usernames and passwords according to your instructions.

These can be more convenient for people who are active internet users changing passwords several times a year across multiple accounts. They allow users to automatically access and update their information whenever they want without the need to work through another person. This is useful if someone has to respond quickly to a bug or security threat.

There are other advantages too. Online services concerned with passwords and passing on digital legacies are varied in what they offer but generally speaking, they aim to centrally manage multiple sources of data in one place. Many include a decent amount of storage for the account holder to organise photos, memories, notes and documents with friendly user interfaces for viewing and downloading. On the whole, they encourage users to think in a structured way about doing an inventory of their online life and the digital legacy that they’d like to share.

When doing your research, it’s worth fully understanding how the service will verify when it is time to share your confidential information. Because of their nature, digital afterlife services are often automated and take a variety of approaches to ascertain if someone has died and if their data should be passed on. Some such as Google Inactive Manager provide information to next of or nominated kin if the account holder hasn’t logged into the service for a period of time. Others, will send prompts, such as emails or texts to customers periodically, asking them to confirm that they are still alive. If there’s no reply, these companies will often do additional checks to establish if the account holder is deceased before finally distributing information to next of kin.

If you don’t check in with or respond to this kind of service within your agreed time period, you may end up sharing information before it’s time, something that will be distressing, awkward and have security implications for you. Ensure that you fully understand the terms and conditions as well as the style and format of communication this kind of service has – both with you and your next of kin.

Also, make sure that your digital service fits in with your lifestyle. If you are not likely to check in regularly with a service that relies on you to do so, either because you don’t spend a lot of time online or you’re unlikely to remember, this type of offering won’t be a convenient option. Similarly, a digital legacy plan that operates by sending a series of electronic prompts asking you to confirm that you are alive won’t work for you if this type of communication bugs you.

Given that the digital afterlife industry is still an immature one, I’d recommend that you find out what the financial status or longer term vision is of the organisation that you’re considering. There have been a few mergers of late. Entrustet was acquired by SecureSafe and more recently PasswordBox bought LegacyLocker. Shifts happen in any industry but it’s worth asking any potential company that’s going to be charged with your digital legacy, what its longer term goals are and how it is going to support them. What are its contingency plans for your data if it expires before you do?

Finally, it’s worth re-iterating that you should check terms and conditions to fully understand what you’re subscribing to, what your responsibilities are when using the service as well as the service provider’s accountability to you. According to Damin Murdock, Principal Lawyer for MurdockCheng Legal Practice, the main benefit of storing your digital estate with a lawyer as opposed to an online platform is that the client will have the comfort of knowing a law firm has a succession plan and is bound by strict rules, regulations and statutory duties. With an online platform, you are only bound by terms and conditions of use for the online platform. Be clear what kind of jurisdictional rules may apply to you and what its commitment is to you and your data.

What digital services exist to manage and transition passwords and other important documentation to next of kin?

Separating the living from the dead on Facebook

In a previous post, I looked into how we group our friends on a day to day basis depending on interests, ideology, personality and our relationship to them. This doesn’t occur to the same degree in our online communities, because it’s more convenient not to and platforms are not yet designed to accommodate nuances in our social graph.

In real life, we also compartmentalise the ways in which we honour our dead.

Recently I attended a school reunion. This is the sort of event that I would ordinarily avoid, but it was a special occasion. My brother and I were both pupils at the same school for many years. Following the news of his death, they elected to hold a chapel service and unveil a memorial plaque in his name at their annual old boys and old girls day.

The service was deferential and took place in the darkened, quiet, solemn environment of the chapel. Prayers were offered, sympathies and reminisces were shared. And then… the congregation headed outside to the lawns where the sun was conveniently shining, to mingle and sip on Pimms while consuming delicious indulgent treats such as strawberries with cream and chocolate cake.

Shrines, graves, areas of worship, significant landmarks provide havens for reflection and commemoration. As a society, we assign times when a community unites to remember thofacebook-memorialization-afterlife-digitalse who have died. Through events, rituals and designated locations, we have times to mourn or reflect and times to live in the present.

Yet our online lives do not reflect this reality and I suspect this is why some people find it difficult when they continue to see a ghostly presence of their deceased friends on social media – on their friends list, tagged post-mortem activity, or automated suggestions in their newsfeeds.

None of the mainstream social networks allow people to separate profiles of deceased friends or acquaintances from their living present-day active ones. Relatives of those who have died might have the option of closing their accounts or (in the case of Facebook) continuing the account but memorialising it. Of course, few people are likely to be aware that memorialisation options even exist, and if they do, the options are fairly black and white.

These limited options do not do justice to the memory of those who have passed away. Nor do they assist our need for ritual to remember them. Personally, I think there’s a huge opportunity for social media platforms to develop separate community spaces designed specifically to commemorate those who have died, where the network connections of the deceased can reflect on past memories together.

Doing this would enable this type of memorial activity to be separate to other day to day social communication with still living connections, connections who may otherwise have no association with those being remembered.

Birthdays, important dates or events in the deceased’s history could be marked in a separate, sincere and respectful environment, fostering a quality of discussion that is more personal and relevant to those who were part of their life. It would  help to ameliorate the awkwardness that death often evokes in other day to day conversations with the living.

Lastly, by introducing separate commemoration areas on social networks, we would publicly acknowledge a person’s death on these relatively new platforms. In a previous age – and today still – a person’s passing was published in a newspaper or community annals to record that person’s existence and history in records.

Currently, anyone who didn’t know of my brother’s death would have no way of knowing via his social existence. He doesn’t show up in Facebook search given his account is memorialised. This is surely restricting the opportunity for greater engagement in the future, when members from extended communities want to reminisce or pass on messages of condolence. In an age when individuals are connecting and searching for connections online, this type of status omission will become more striking by its absence, over time.

How to manage someone’s Facebook community after they have died

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Recently I wrote about some of the issues that memorialising a Facebook profile raises for relatives or next of kin managing the Facebook community for someone who has died. (What is Facebook memorialisation?) The user’s account is made inactive by Facebook meaning that no one person is responsible for moderating or content on that account any longer. This can present issues if any friends of the deceased post inappropriate comments or remarks that the former account holder may have removed while they were alive. Settings are also locked into the status that they were when the request for memorialiation was made – so if privacy was set to “Public” or the account is given permission to link to search engines, there’s potentially a larger community to manage.

Facebook may or may not be evolving its memorialisation options in the future. News of someone dying will evoke a tremendous wave of activity on social networks as friends come to terms with the loss of someone they knew or were close to. In the event that you are managing a Facebook profile that belongs to someone who has passed away, or wondering how to deal with particular online grieving messages on an account wall that has already been memorialised, here are some suggestions based on our family’s recent experience losing someone.

Tips for community management & social etiquette

Ask people to think about what your deceased friend or family member would have posted his/herself and how they positioned themselves on their social networks. What would the profile owner have tagged or un-tagged? Sweaty, crazy pictures at a nightclub posted by a friend might indicate they had a good night out with the person who has died. If the latter was proud of their appearance though, pictures where they are looking worse for wear, might not be something that they would have tagged and kept on their wall when alive.  We found that people generally talked about Facebook at my brother’s funeral as well as other commemorative or memorial events. Friends often checked in with family members about what would be appropriate and still do. Use these occasions to ask people to consider updates from the perspective of the deceased.

Set the example in posting the types of photos/updates to set the tone and enlist the support of friends to do so. My immediate family were all in a state of shock for days after we heard the news. Fortunately, some very close friends of my brother’s took on the task of posting updates to his communities.

Message people directly when you’re trying to manage messages from within the community. If you’re concerned about posted photos or messages that do not conform to the image the person would have wanted to convey or is likely to offend others in their network, don’t hesitate to drop them a private message asking them to remove the content. People tend to respect these wishes if offered with an explanation.

Take a social media sabbatical. If you find yourself or others getting wound up by comments or photos posted, take a break and encourage others to do the same. When emotions are running high, comments or photos may be misinterpreted and you may find yourself stressing about what others might do. The best advice I can offer is to move away from the screen if you’re feeling affected. And you can enlist the help of trusted friends to monitor it or communicate with network members while you take time out.

If you want to build an ongoing community on a memorialised profile, set this expectation as well as the tone. Use the account to commemorate major ongoing milestones – birthdays, anniversaries, significant dates. News amongst friends in the deceased’s network could also be shared. New friendships may be forged and old ones reignited or strengthened when a mutual friend dies.

Any other recommendations? I’d love to hear them. Post your thoughts and questions below.

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