Internet Social Media

Your Last Email & Testament – What Happens To Your Data When You Die?

Joshua Lockhart 12-02-2013

what happens to data when you dieI know it’s a morbid subject, but the reality is that we live in a virtually immortal society. While our bodies may cease to exist, our virtual profiles go on appearing in emails, automatic notifications, and even advertisements. To the living, this can be a bit depressing, and in fact, when my grandfather died, the first action I took was to delete his Facebook account to protect my family’s morale.


But what will you do to make the transition process easy on your loved ones? What happens to data when you die? Will you just let things take their course, or will you set up a post-death data management plan? Below are a few tips and solutions offering details as to what you can do.

How To Handle Social Accounts

what happens to data when you die

Most people are concerned about their social accounts after death, and rightly so. With automatic updates and emails like “so-and-so likes this product – so should you” and “what’s-his-face has Tweets for you” there is reason to be concerned about how your “social ghost” will affect loved ones.

Facebook, as you may know, offers a couple of options – memorialization or deletion. With memorialization, your account will become a virtual ode to your life. As for deletion, no one will see or hear from your account ever again. All Facebook requires of the person notifying the company is to provide some sort of proof of death.

As for Twitter, things are a bit more complicated and formal. A death certificate and the messenger’s government-issued ID are even necessary! Of course, this is done as a preemptive measure to keep pranksters from deleting live accounts. In the end, just make sure that someone is around to tell your social media accounts about your death.


This covers your social media accounts, but for those of you worried about your email address What Happens To Your Email and Social Networking Accounts When You Die? Read More , MakeUseOf actually has already covered how this can be handled.

Social Account Information Ownership

what happens to your data when you die

One important question people often have is this – who owns my intellectual property? Well, Facebook’s policy states that they have the license to use your posted IP until it or your account is deleted. That said, in the event that you may have posted some important information (privately or publicly), you may want to arrange for your account to bite the dust.

That was probably a poor choice of words. I’m sorry.


As for Twitter, there’s really no issue. The service’s ToS blatantly explains that Twitter respects your copyright. Since the whole website is about sharing public links, photos, and statuses, I wouldn’t say there is much to worry about at all.

Oh, And About Your Files And Storage…

what happens to your data when you die

Let’s be real – any bit of data you left on your hard drive is going to stay. That stands unless you have developed some high-tech device that monitors your heartbeat, designed to detonate a small series of explosives embedded within the drive when your body shuts down. Unfortunately, we’re not all as handsome and innovative as Tony Stark, are we?

If you want your files found, properly storing them might best way to have them handled. For instance, my grandfather left a bit of his cash in a Shakespeare anthology. He made it clear to me that this is where the money would be found in the event of his death rather than haphazardly tossing it in places around his home.


By not carelessly shoving away your files into random folders, you can help your loved ones find what you want them to find. Use your Documents, Pictures, and Videos folders for what they are intended for, and do everyone a favor – clearly label files. For files that you don’t want found – well, that’s up to you. Either have a designated deleter or place these files in the less-traveled areas of your computer.

Regarding your most important information, it would be best to place it on the cloud (whether that be Google, DropBox, or iCloud). Keep the access information safe yet accessible when you pass on.

It All Comes Down To Preparation

what happens to data when you die

To be clear, we live in a world where digital property is  just as important as physical property – PayPal information How to Set Up a PayPal Account and Receive Money From Anyone Think receiving payment with PayPal is difficult to set up? Here's how to send and receive money with a PayPal account. Read More , e-banking information, email accounts, social accounts, digital photos…I’d suggest creating a digital will that you can leave behind to your loved ones. No, this isn’t a humorous play on words that I concocted. It’s actually something very real (and kind of cool). Included should be account information, hard drive access details, computer passwords, and smartphone passcodes.


Furthermore, keep an inventory of all this information in a spreadsheet file. Add a column for special notes when they apply – for instance, where do you keep your external hard drives? Include the location. Print off a copy every single time you update it, and store it in a safe place. Heck, print off multiple copies and also put the file in the cloud for safe-keeping. If you want, let at least one trustworthy family member knows where this file is at all time. Else, just include the access information in the digital will.

Besides a designated person, you can use services such as If I Die If I Die: Post Your Last Message on Facebook Read More or Death Switch to release your information upon your passing.


Ultimately, the best way to prepare for the future of your digital identity upon death is summed up into one word – preparation. Futuristic heartbeat monitors don’t exist on the mainstream circuit, so it’s up to you to decide how everything will end up.

How will you what happens to your data when you die? Have you ever taken the release of this information into consideration? What other methods would you suggest?

Image Credits: Natesh RamasamyEnglish106Velo Steve, Photo Monkey

Related topics: Identity Theft, Online Privacy, Virtual Identity.

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  1. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    February 22, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    I don't understand how I can miss this article before. This is certainly interesting, and as our life becomes more and more on-line, this is no longer a laughingstock. I think I might as well sort my accounts and close down those I no longer use, and make sure I would put my name in good light as long as I can. You won't want your loved ones to be shameful at your stupid Facebook status when they're organizing a memorial.

    • Joshua Lockhart
      February 23, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      Lisa, your comments are always insightful.

  2. Karen Ang
    February 14, 2013 at 6:41 am

    Really helpful. Thanks!

  3. Guy McDowell
    February 14, 2013 at 4:23 am

    Funny, I was just thinking the other day about what it would take to write an Internet Dead Man Switch. Something that would close down your various accounts, should you fail to perform a specific action every x amount of days.

    More personally, when my Dad passed, I spent a lot of time online trying to get to know him. To see what mark he left on the world. I was able to get in touch with a lot of his old army friends and they told me stories I never heard before. I really needed to hear those stories.

    Sometimes I wish I could just find one more thing he posted on the Internet. It would somehow be like hearing from him directly again. Such is the powerful and intimate nature of a technology that we treat so flippantly.

    I don't see my son very often either. It's just the way it is. But if I should pass, and he should go online to find out about his erstwhile Dad, I'm certain the things he'll find will make him proud of me. They will give him some insight into my thoughts on things he may have never asked about. He may see some of himself in what I've left online. Who know's what he'll get from it?

    Perhaps 20 years ago, the only permanent record you could make of yourself would be in a journal or in a book you wrote. But who journals religiously? Who has written a book about their philosophy? Not many. Now, journaling is arguably the most popular activity on the web, via Facebook. And people can establish blogs that read like books or their own treatises and essays on the things they put serious thought toward. So that's pretty cool, I think.

    That's my nickels worth.

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      February 22, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      An insightful comment. You put forwards many questions I'd like to be addressed here.
      One drawback of paper journals is its tangibility. I'm not joking. It's real, it's a three-dimensional object existing in our real world that it's prone to accident. Water, fire, and all sorts of natural intervention. I've yet to see someone who record their thoughts with paperbound journals and regularly scan them to keep digital copy as well. That kind of arrangement should work well.

    • Joshua Lockhart
      April 29, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Guy. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your comments. The past two times I have tried to reply, there seemed to be an error with the system.

      Sorry for not responding.

  4. dragonmouth
    February 13, 2013 at 11:03 am

    "Regarding your most important information, it would be best to place it on the cloud (whether that be Google, DropBox, or iCloud). "

    Sorry to disagree. Inasmuch as cloud storage is the latest rage and is the "kewl" thing to do, the cloud is the WORST place to store data, especially "most important data". Once data leaves your computer, you have effectively lost any control over it. It becomes subject to the whims of the storage owner or administrator. Any change in corporate policy, storage provider going out of business, a catastrophic event at the storage server can deprive you of access to your data. Also, how sure are that your data is not being hacked, sold to anyone willing to pay for it or disseminated to entities unknown?

    I keep MY data on MY hard drive in MY computer in MY house. I know what kind of security I have set up. When I die, my descendants will have instant access to my data.

    • Márcio Guerra
      February 22, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      Totally agree with you! I believe it is preferable to keep it close rather then online! You made a good point there!


    • Joshua Lockhart
      February 23, 2013 at 3:47 pm

      It's not that it's cool, dragonmouth. It's that you can access it anywhere. What if your equipment is ruined?

      I say put it on both.

      • dragonmouth
        February 23, 2013 at 5:34 pm

        "What if your equipment is ruined?"
        What if the cloud storage server farm gets hit by a meteor? /grin/
        We can both come up with scenarios that prove our point of view and disprove the other guy's.

        There is no way you can convince me the cloud is a good backup. When the NSA, CIA and FBI start using cloud storage, so will I.

  5. Márcio Guerra
    February 13, 2013 at 3:42 am

    This is a serious article. You did well with some pinches of humor in between and it was nice.
    I tend to think about this issue a lot. Well, I tend to think about death a lot, specially when about to sleep, that moment where you're half the way. Don't remember an English word for that. And sometimes, while still awake, this question came to my mind, but objectively, I wasn't expecting to see it addressed here on MUO, ehehhe!
    It is a good article, serious, like I've said, and it gave me another perspective regarding some things I was starting to think of my own, to keep all of the passwords together, etc. I hope I'm not yet at half of my life, at least, but you never know which day is tomorrow...

    Thank you! Cheers!

    Márcio Guerra

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      February 22, 2013 at 4:59 pm

      Maybe that word you're searching for is 'limbo', the place inbetween which is neither here or there. It's scary and I used to have nightmares for quite a long time, leading to some kind of depression. We have to realize that we're not immortal. The subject of death may sound harsh and faraway, but it's real. It'll happen and we never know when.
      I do hope I don't need those data for a long time to come...

      • Márcio Guerra
        February 22, 2013 at 9:03 pm

        Yes, «limbo» is a good word, yes... And we use it in Portuguese as well, despite not a Portuguese word, I guess.. Nightmares I must say that I don't remember having them. Just those «limbo» moments, however I do feel the same as you, not needing that data for a long time. Looooong time! Eehhehe!

        And by the way, until I was, perhpas, 22/23 years old I had a theory that I was immortal until the day that someone prove me wrong, ahahah! Meaning, «I'm immortal for as long as I live», not that I was immortal for all time. Some books, fictional novelties, like the «Da Vinci 's Code» and others, from Portuguese writers, made me reconsider all my thoughts regarding life and universe... And, curiously, despite having full understanding of how small we are, I really found a bit of a meaning of life in one of our Portuguese writers, like this one, «The God's formula» (fictional, of course, but with some scientific research) and now I tend to accept things a bit better. And no, I still don't believe in God and no, the title is just like a metaphor.


  6. Dee Wheat
    February 13, 2013 at 2:41 am

    I've had two good friends who died, one about a year ago, and another about two years ago. Because Facebook is so buggy despite what they claim, I STILL get updates from both of them once in a while. Both were single with little if any family, and of course none of us who cared about them can access their accounts. Even though I'm a retired ER nurse and accustomed to dealing with death on a regular basis, it will still catch me off guard now and then and give me a little jolt.

  7. salvador hernandez
    February 12, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    Great article. During my last deployment a friend of mine had all his accounts and passwords organized in a notebook that he kept specifically for in case anything were to happen to him his family would get the notebook and would be able to handle his accounts and have access to his computer and files.

  8. Anonymous
    February 12, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Thanks for a very useful article. I had a friend who kept a "Notify" category in his e-mail contact list. This included all of the people - probably several hundred - that he wanted notified when he passed away. (He was in frail health and knew he did not have long.) The last message I received from his e-mail began, "This is not Richard. It is his daughter. He would want you to know that he passed away peacefully yesterday after a long illness . . . ." Other details, including time and location of viewing, funeral and condolences were included. Many of us do not get a newspaper, or do not scan obits if we do. This notification system gave us time to react and respond to the family or to attend the funeral if we wished.

  9. GF
    February 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    We have the possibility to remain online forever:

  10. Mac Witty
    February 12, 2013 at 8:47 am

    I think some people who visit this blog might also be in charge of or give help to organizations. Do keep a record of where they have accounts and log in information. Maybe also with a note about who to contact for handling over the information. Tell you relatives that you have such thing and where they can find it. It is not easy for an organization to contact relatives and ask about this when someone has passed away.

    • Joshua Lockhart
      February 12, 2013 at 9:11 am

      Very true, Mac.

  11. Rubis Song
    February 12, 2013 at 8:30 am

    You know what? Actually this is not a morbid subject but it's one of the most important thing each one of us should do.
    I know a friend who passed away in an accident and left his wife without any clue as for the bank account and other information. Until now, 4 years later, he still can't access anything.
    This is a must if we really love our families.
    My only concern was: is the website thrusty enough to keep all these confidential info? What if someone hack them and take control of all our precious info?
    I guess the best option would be to give a clue of where our beloved would go and take these info that we could have hide somewhere else.

    • Joshua Lockhart
      February 12, 2013 at 9:11 am

      Glad you think this way, Rubis. Thank you for your response.

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      February 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm

      How about a book containing every single piece of important information you have? Lock it in a safe and tell the password only to your closest, trusted one to open in case of your death.

  12. Jacques Knipe
    February 12, 2013 at 8:17 am

    I'm busy sorting out my online life at the moment, from emails to finding my accounts everywhere. I guess this is another very important subject.
    How does that one joke go? "When I die I want my friend to access my Facebook and update my status to 'Chilling with Jesus'."