Nowadays, almost everyone has a social media account, email account, and files saved via cloud storage. Any good estate plan must consider what will happen to all of those digital assets and data. One relatively new approach is to add "legacy contacts" to your online accounts. Several major social media and tech companies are now offering this tool to give users a way to plan for what happens to their data after death.
A legacy contact is a person you choose to manage your online accounts after your death. During your lifetime, you designate this trusted person to access your account, download your data, or delete your account after you die. Because legacy contacts are a relatively new development, not all tech companies currently offer this tool. But several do, as discussed below.
Failing to name a legacy contact doesn't mean that your loved ones will never be able to access your online accounts. Some types of digital assets (such as funds in an account) can be passed to inheritors by will or living trust. (If you die without a will or living trust, the intestacy laws of your state will determine your heirs for digital assets as well as other assets.) And even the digital assets that can be passed to inheritors by will or living trust can present challenges when it comes to access via usernames and passwords. Sometimes your loved ones will need to get the probate court involved.
The most important takeaway? Make a plan for your digital assets. You may decide to use a combination of estate planning tools, such as making a will that lists your digital assets, providing instructions and passwords to your executor, and naming your executor as the legacy contact on your accounts.
Note that a legacy contact is not necessarily a beneficiary (inheritor) of all digital assets associated with your online accounts. For example, if you had monetized your Youtube account, the legacy contact doesn't automatically have a right to the ongoing funds generated by your account. That inheritance will still depend on your will, living trust, or the intestacy laws of your state.
After your death, your Facebook account can either be memorialized or removed. Content on a memorialized account is visible, so your pictures and posts will be preserved. If your account is removed at death, it will no longer be accessible.
Your loved ones can memorialize your account or request to remove it regardless of whether you name a legacy contact. However, designating a legacy contact offers several advantages:
Of course, you might not want someone to have full access to all of your data. You might be relieved to know that your legacy contact can't:
A legacy contact is a useful way to ensure that your memory can be properly honored. To get started, follow these instructions for adding a Facebook legacy contact.
Many people keep a great deal of data in their Apple accounts: iCloud photos, email, voice memos, and more. If you don't provide someone with access to this data, it may be lost forever. The easiest way to ensure someone can access your Apple account is to name a legacy contact. Without a legacy contact designation, your friends and family may need to provide a court order naming them as your heirs in order to gain access.
However, Apple legacy contacts still have a few steps to take when you pass away. They must provide a death certificate as well as an access key. This access key is generated when you make someone your legacy contact, and it's important that you share that key with your legacy contact before death. (You might, for example, add the key to the list of information you pass on to your executor.)
After your death, your legacy contact can request access to your Apple account. Upon approval, the legacy contact can access and download your photos, messages, notes, and other data. They will not be able to access information saved in your Keychain (like passwords) or payment information like credit cards saved on Apple Pay. You can name more than one legacy contact, and any of your legacy contacts can access and manage your data. Three years after approval of the legacy contact by Apple, the account will be permanently deleted.
You must have an Apple device running iOS 15.2, iPadOS 15.2, or macOS Monterey 12.1 to add a legacy contact. To get started, follow these instructions from Apple.
As with Apple, many keep a vast amount of digital assets and data in their Google accounts—in Gmail, Google photos, Google Drive, YouTube, and more. While Google does not have a legacy contact process like Facebook or Apple, it does have an Inactive Account Manager, which you can use to giveyour loved ones the ability to access your accounts after they become inactive. This program achieves a similar result to a legacy contact.
Google allows you to choose a deadline for when the company should consider your account inactive—for example, after three months or 12 months of inactivity. When you pass away and no longer use the account, that timeline will be triggered.
When you set up the Inactive Account Manager, you can choose to either share your data with someone or delete your account once the deadline has passed. You can also choose to share different data with different people.
If you don't set up your Inactive Account Manager, your loved ones can still submit a request to access or close the account. But they would need to provide a photo ID, death certificate, and other relevant documents to make their case, and are not guaranteed to be successful.
To make a plan, follow Google's step-by-step setup process for Inactive Account Manager.
Legacy contacts are a relatively new tool, and many online accounts—Microsoft, Yahoo, Instagram, and Twitter, for example—do not yet have a legacy contact process. Some, like Microsoft, don't provide any way to access an account after a person passes away. Others, like Twitter, will deactivate or delete an account once they receive appropriate proof of death. And the policies are always subject to change as this area evolves.
If for some reason you don't want to designate a legacy contact—or if a particular company doesn't provide a legacy contact process—there are low-tech methods for preserving your data when you die. These solutions involve sharing your account information with specific people so that they can access your accounts after you pass away. You can input usernames and passwords into a spreadsheet, a password manager, or a physical notebook. But however you do it, it's becoming increasingly important to include your online accounts in your estate plan. For more information, visit Nolo's series on digital assets.