What happens to your data when you die? Should we even care? We won’t be here to worry about it, after all… But I’ve known people who went through absolute hell trying to shut down accounts/subscriptions for their dead loved ones, running into all kinds of login-related roadblocks and red tape, which is the last thing any grieving person needs. I don’t want anyone to go through that when it’s my turn! This is why I think everyone needs a Data Steward: someone you can trust with your critical online information in the event you’re incapacitated or (gasp) dead.
My Data Steward is my husband — he has access to everything in case I pop my clogs before he does. He needs to be able to quickly cancel whatever he needs to, especially anything linked to our bank account or credit cards. Nobody should be saddled with an unwanted and un-cancelable subscription to Artisanal Pickles of the Month or Derpy Dogs Quarterly. (Those aren’t real, but I’d do a free trial of both, not gonna lie.)
Some of my information will be shared via the encrypted password manager we use, but the most crucial stuff will also be printed out and kept in a place only he knows about. A printout sounds counterintuitive, but a hardcopy can save your ass when technology fails. Plus, a securely-stored sheet of paper can’t be hacked!
I’m also calling mine the Death File…because why not?
While writing up my Death File I had to think of all the places where my data lives and spell out exactly how he can access them. Here are the ones I’ve covered so far. Your list may look a bit different, of course, but these would be a good place to start. Note that I’m not a security expert or anything — these are collected from personal experience as well as best practices I’ve learned from reading a lot of “Do this before you die” articles. I’m not expecting to die soon, either, but you just never know…you know?
This is the big one for me. I use Bitwarden to store all my logins and passwords (after many years of LastPass, which I dumped following their most recent hacking incident), and my husband will rely on the information in there to access my various accounts and other things. We both use the app and certain important logins are shared between us, so if I need to access his email or other logins in an emergency, it won’t be a problem. But if he needs to shut down a bunch of my other accounts, he’ll need to login to Bitwarden under my name to access that stuff.
My login info for this is one of the things on the printed instructions, because if he can’t get into my password manager, he’s locked out of pretty much everything else.
If you’ve enabled 2FA on all your email and social media accounts (and you really should), your Data Steward will need to obtain a code from your phone’s authenticator app in order to log in. I’m currently using Google Authenticator, which assumes my husband have access to my phone when I’m gone. If he doesn’t, he’ll have the recovery codes mentioned below.
There are variations of 2FA now, such as passphrases and hardware keys like the YubiKey, so include instructions on your printout as to which type of 2FA you use and what they require for authentication.
Optional: Backup/Recovery codes
Online services that provide 2FA also provide a set of recovery codes which can be used in situations when an authenticator app is unavailable. You should consider collecting these codes from your various accounts and putting them in your printed instructions. If your Data Steward is somehow unable to access your phone’s authenticator app, these codes will enable them to get into your accounts and take care of business.
These can be crucial since many people use their email address as the login for websites and apps, so it’s important that your Data Steward to have access to all of them when shutting down or deleting your accounts. It will also make your address book available to them so they can reach out to whoever they might need to, assuming they don’t already have that info.
Social media accounts
This is potentially another big one: you’ll have to decide whether you want your social media accounts deleted or left public when you’re gone. Facebook has a “Memorialize” feature which, once activated, allows people to still view and interact with your Facebook profile. (Your Data Steward will have to activate this feature, I believe.) I have several friends whose accounts were set up this way after they passed, and each year on their birthdays people still come to reminisce and tell them how much they’re missed. I used to think that was a little weird, but I soon warmed up to it. This is what I’d like done with mine. I have accounts with Instagram and Mastodon as well, but Facebook is still where I have the most connections with people from throughout my life. It’s also the one I’ve grown to use least, but I can’t bring myself to completely abandon it.
Another thing I recommend is downloading an archive of your data from every social media service you use — all posts, photos, videos, etc. — at least once a year, and include it in the files that your Data Steward will be able to access. Just set a recurring reminder on your calendar so you don’t forget. It’s also a great way to preserve your activity before deactivating or deleting an account, in case you ever want to go back through it. (I highly recommend deleting your Twitter account and moving on, by the way. Your downloaded archive is browseable just like Twitter itself, which is pretty awesome.)
If you have blogs with WordPress, Tumblr, etc. you’ll want to let your Data Steward know whether or not they should be shut down or deleted once you’re gone. Personally, I want my WordPress stuff to remain active and publicly visible. Not because it’s all genius writing or anything, but because I like the idea of my weird thoughts and rantings being out there for random people to stumble upon.
Note that if you have a paid blog account, you may want to revert it to the free tier, if the blogging service has one, since you won’t be updating it anymore. This is also important because once the payments stop, the blog service might delete it after a while. Better to have it on the free tier with fewer perks (and maybe some ads) than to have it disappear altogether!
Don’t forget about any domain names associated with your blog, either. They will need to be renewed yearly once you’re gone, but if you don’t care about the domain you might be able to have it default to a more generic address. With WordPress, my blogs have their own paid domain names but they can also be accessed via WordPress addresses, such as totalobscurity.wordpress.com.
Specific to WordPress: I’ve avoided using my domain name totalobscurity.com when linking to other parts of the site. This way, when my domain eventually expires after I do, those links won’t be broken — they will still point to pages within wordpress.com. Honestly I probably don’t even need that domain name anymore, but I’ve owned it for over 20 years and at this point I’m just holding onto it for stubbornness!
If you use cloud services for document storage, what do you want to happen to all those files? If you’re using free services, there’s a good chance they’ll just remain there indefinitely, frozen in time. Lately more companies are auto-deleting unused accounts after a period of inactivity, though, so be aware of that as well. But if you pay for the storage you’re using, your Data Steward will need to know how to access those files and what you’d like done with them. Do you want them downloaded/preserved, or even deleted?
I’ve used at least a dozen different cloud storage services over the years, moving from one to the next as they get more expensive or begin to suck. Currently we have a Microsoft 365 family plan which provides 1TB of OneDrive storage per person. That’s more space than anyone should ever need, and yet I’ve filled more than half of it with backups of my music & ebook collections and other things. When I die and my subscription expires, those files will still be there but uploading will be locked, so I’m leaving instructions for my husband on how to access all that stuff and what I’d like him to do with it (if anything).
Online Media storage
Photos and videos can be an extremely important record of someone’s life. When you’re gone, do you want anyone to be able to access them and possibly share them with loved ones? I’ve got a massive photo collection stretching all the way back to my birth, and I want others in my family to be able to see them…assuming they’ll want to!
I use Google Photos to store and organize my photos/videos these days, but whatever service you use, be sure that your Data Steward can get into those accounts so they can download copies or move them to another service (or even delete them if you prefer). If you don’t want to give them full account access, maybe you can just share your galleries with them so they can at least get to them that way.
Your instructions may be far less (or far more) involved than mine, of course, but the important thing is to get this info organized and make it available to someone you trust. It really does bring some peace of mind!