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It is easy to hoard digital accounts. I’m sure most people cannot remember every account they’ve ever created.

The internet is a vast place. Services come and go. Sometimes creating an account is the only way to get access to a specific file or publication. Add in your enormous digital footprint — photos, music, videos, and so on — and keeping track of what is important becomes difficult.

The succession of your digital world is becoming equal to your physical life. We make a will declaring how we can our earthly belongings at the moment of death, so why not consider our digital assets too? Who Owns Your Data When You Are Dead? Who Owns Your Data When You Are Dead? The ownership of data at the moment of death is a modern question. Whose hands does it fall into? Who has rights and who can stake a claim? Read More

There are a few services that will allow your heirs to inherit your digital assets. But what do they offer that you cannot do yourself, and what sets one apart from the competition? Let’s find out.

A Vault or a Switch?

First, let’s set out what a digital inheritance vault is. There are differing views on what constitutes a vault.

  • Digital Inheritance Vault — A secure, internet-accessible digital vault that contains your will and/or other documents pertinent to your passing.
  • Dead Man’s Switch — A service that periodically checks that you’re still alive via email, SMS, or other. If you fail to respond, the DMS sends an email/message to your pre-ordained contact.

The confusion arises between the services offered by a vault versus a switch. In reality, both a vault and a switch could be potentially used to send a notarized will alongside other important documents.

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You have to consider what your digital succession will be — a fully-fledged passing of digital accounts, personal digital data, and your will? Or just some of the above? Furthermore, who are you sending them to, and will they keep the same email address?

digital inheritance vault locked laptop
Image Credit: Maxx-Studio via Shutterstock

A Digital Inheritance Vault Explained

The majority of services advertising specifically as a “Digital Inheritance Vault” (or similar) focus on the transition of important documents, including a will.

For instance, U.K. service Safe4 Digital Inheritance Vault says about its solution:

“. . . is an internet-based service that allows your will writer to place all of the information required for your inheritance plan to be held in a secure facility that you can access at any time, from anywhere an internet connection.”

The service also allows you to upload information to the vault of your own accord. Access to the vault is limited to you and your will-writer, though you can allow your estate-executor access to certain parts of the digital vault.

Of course, this article is considering a digital legacy. This particular service recognizes, “that many of us use services such as PayPal or eBay . . . Money held in any of these accounts can add to the value of the estate if a record is kept within the vault.”

This is the general overview of a digital inheritance vault, on both sides of the pond. In addition, most vaults provide a limited amount of storage, usually no more than 5 GB (reasoning that you’re only storing digital documents containing details that might link to other, larger password-protected data-storage 7 Reasons to Use a NAS for Data Storage & Backups 7 Reasons to Use a NAS for Data Storage & Backups External hard drives are great for data storage, but there are many more benefits to using a network-attached drive instead. Here's everything you need to know. Read More ).

A Vault by Any Other Name

The term “digital inheritance vault” is an old idea shaped for the 21st Century. In fact, it isn’t even that old. Secure digital storage vaults or safe deposit boxes have increased in popularity throughout Europe and the U.S. for several years now. Highly secure digital safe deposit boxes are a banking mainstay, just as their analog counterparts have been for centuries.

The transition to digital vaults is something that insurance and banking institutions have embraced. Digital inheritance is a newer, cross-generational advertising tool that is gaining traction.

Can I Use a Dead Man’s Switch Instead?

Absolutely. There are Dead Man’s Switch services that you can load with documents and other important files. Failure to respond to the DMS contact (SMS, email, etc.) will send your documents to a pre-configured contact.

The most significant difference between a digital inheritance vault (and other managed succession services) is attorney and other legal service support. The majority of DMS services require a sign-up email address, your “next-of-kin” contact, and any messages and/or documents you want to send.

In theory, you can provide your attorney or estate executor with detailed instructions of your DMS configuration. Or they could be your DMS contact.

Choosing a Vault

Unfortunately, this isn’t like Fallout 4. A friendly digital inheritance vault salesman is highly unlikely to knock at your door. So, we’ve a few tips and suggestions to help instead.

  1. Security — Your digital inheritance vault should use strong encryption How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? Read More throughout the entire transaction: uploading and downloading files, and storing thereafter. Optional: all communication completed using PGP PGP Me: Pretty Good Privacy Explained PGP Me: Pretty Good Privacy Explained Read More .
  2. Privacy — The contents of your vault remain yours alone. They should not be accessible to anyone but you, your digital estate executor and/or your attorney.
  3. Ownership — Seems like a non-starter, but carefully read the terms and conditions to ensure your files remains yours at all times, including after you pass away.
  4. Beneficiary Protection — Like ownership, carefully check the rights of your beneficiaries at the moment of passing.
  5. Legality — Formalizing your digital inheritance is important. Your service provider should work with you and your attorney to enshrine your wishes in a legally binding document that you can then store in your vault.
  6. Payment — Consider how much a service costs, and what other services are on offer. Is the vault a secondary service of a data storage business Five Technologies to Make Sure Your Data Lives Forever Five Technologies to Make Sure Your Data Lives Forever They say that on the internet, nothing ever goes away. In reality, almost all of our data is slowly being lost. Can we protect our media for future generations? Read More , or is the vault the primary income source for a single service business?

Remember, you cannot just stick a list of account passwords in your will. When you die, your will becomes a public document, meaning anyone can read it. This is another good reason to work with an attorney and a digital inheritance service. You can refer to an external document containing specific details, with a list of named individuals that can access said document, held by your attorney.

Think About Your Precious Digital Possessions

15 years ago, the succession of digital accounts was unlikely to be a prominent feature when devising a will. I’m sure for some technology-focused individuals it was, but for the layman, the idea of digital inheritance is still relatively new.

There are numerous services out there to choose from. Consider the suggestions we’ve made. Choosing a digital inheritance vault is a new process — and if you follow our tips, it doesn’t have to be stressful.

Have you organized your digital succession? What service did you choose? How did you make the decision? Do you think people should be more aware of digital inheritance?

Image Credits: Henri et George/Shutterstock

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  1. Maurice Frank
    July 15, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Can you provide a list of digital vault services? Thanks