Joanna Shears has everything to live for. But the 34-year-old is already fixated on death.
Shears is an accomplished artist and taxidermist. Sometimes, she marries her interests in elaborate video installations that are meditations on how our lives end. She maintains a blog, The Winding Sheet, where she discusses funerals, cemeteries and “death positivity,” the idea that improving your outlook on the inevitable might help you enjoy the present.
Given her preoccupation, it’s no surprise Shears has begun thinking about her own demise. Three years ago, Shears stumbled across DeadSocial, an online service for managing the digital afterlife and sending messages to loved ones. The service, she thought, was the smartest way she could wrangle her roughly 50 web accounts and thousands of digital photos.
“I haven’t written a will because I don’t feel like I’ve got anything to leave to anybody,” Shears told me from her home in London. “All I’ve got to leave is shitloads of photos, and that is an asset and something I really care about.”
Bite the dust. Buy the farm. Push up daisies. It doesn’t matter what you call it, everyone needs to prepare for the Big Sleep. With more and more of our lives taking place online, that’s become increasingly difficult to do. Think about how many email accounts you have. Who will corral those when you’re gone?
Not so long ago, relatives, estate executors or lawyers might comb through someone’s home after he or she kicked the bucket. They’d poke through the mail, maybe fish out an electric bill or bank statement. They’d find a subscription to a magazine or a fruit of the month club. Eventually, they’d put together enough leads to wind down someone’s obligations.
The internet has turned the paper trail into virtual confetti. Sure, it’s not hard to find someone’s Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. You might even be able to guess a password or two. But you won’t guess them all, and even if you could you might be breaking the law; in many places accounts can’t be legally accessed by anyone other than the holder.
All that gray area creates the potential for Twitter, Facebook, email and other accounts to sit stranded online in a state of suspended animation. At best, they’ll be creepy reminders every time they prompt friends and family to wish a happy birthday to the departed. At worst, they’ll keep important assets, like bank balances, locked away.
Statistics on zombie accounts are hard to come by, but some simple math suggests a lot of cyberspace is haunted.
More than 2.6 million Americans died in 2014, according to the CDC’s latest numbers, and roughly 84 percent of US adults are on the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Given that password manager Dashlane estimates the average user has 90 accounts, you get just shy of 200 million undead accounts.
The problem is only going to get worse. Older people — you know Gen Xers and baby boomers — have fewer online accounts than millennials, analysts say. And, no surprise, the younger crowd is more apt to use social media, with 90 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds using social networks, Pew says.
The proliferation of accounts isn’t necessarily a problem. The problem is that less than half of Americans have wills, according to Gallup, and a standard will isn’t likely to cover digital property.
“We’re in for a tidal wave,” said Karin Prangley, a wealth manager at Brown Brothers Harriman who specializes in estate planning. As millennials age and start dying, it’s going to create a nightmare for their executors, who are legally responsible for settling their affairs.
“It’s not like ‘oh, I’ll give it my best shot’ and you hang up the towel and say ‘I hope I got everything,'” Prangley said.
Estate planning 2.0
Everyone should get around to inventorying their online accounts, and recording what should be done with them, says Jim Lamm, a third-generation estate planner who also writes the Digital Passing blog about the intersection of estate planning and the online world.
Lamm says you should also keep track of any data you have in the cloud, which he recommends backing up to a hard drive. No surprise, he advises working with an estate planning attorney so that your loved ones have documentation of what you want to happen.
“If you’ve died, it’s a little hard to give your consent unless you’ve planned ahead,” Lamm said.
Of course, plenty of DIY approaches are available for those who prefer a hands-on tack.
Big services — think Facebook, Google and Twitter — offer different settings for handling your accounts and data.
Google’s Inactive Account Manager lets you make plans for what you want to happen to your account after a certain period of inactivity, say a year. Facebook lets you set a legacy contact to manage your memorialized page. Twitter requires documentation that you’ve died. So, there’s not much you can do about that in advance.
If you need more, a cottage industry has sprung up to fill in the spaces.
MemorializeMe, for example, sends prewritten or recorded messages after someone dies, stores documents, creates an online memorial and saves contacts. Afternote rounds up your social media accounts and lets you specify what you want done with them, as well as creates farewell wishes and a timeline of your life. Perpetu offers similar services and downloads information, such as your Facebook timeline, tweets and LinkedIn connections.
Each of the services works a little differently, but they’re essentially variations on a theme: Designate someone to notify the service you are no more and they’ll start sending out messages and shutting down your accounts. Some, like MemorializeMe and Afternote are free. Others have pricing plans. Perpetu is $10 a year or $99 in perpetuity.
Rocket Lawyer, a monthly subscription service that starts at $39.95 per month, provides a template for legal documents that deal with your digital property.
Why is all the planning important? Because companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook all have different policies. That’s compounded by federal and state laws that prohibit them from sharing your data without consent.
In some ways, the law is still being hammered out. Lamm and a colleague co-authored the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which would harmonize US state and federal privacy laws. About half the states have adopted a revised version. Lamm says the laws are so new, it’s too early to tell the effect.
That also means law surrounding the issue is taking shape abroad as well, Prangley says. For now, being spread out in different countries can cause hiccups, like figuring out which arm of a provider to contact. Yahoo Asia? Yahoo in the US?
But really, Prangley says, it mostly boils down to a network’s terms of service.
“The rules of the game on an account, whether it’s domestic or international, generally tend to be those terms of service,” she says.
Until the law smooths out the process of settling one’s digital affairs, online tools can help users get organized.
Eileen Pedersen saw the need for such online services after her mother-in-law died in 2014.
Though Pedersen’s in-law was a tidy, organized woman, sorting through her accounts proved to be an arduous, emotionally draining task that fell on Pedersen’s husband. It came just as the couple was in the middle of selling their home and moving cross-country, adding to the stress.
All the complications got Pedersen thinking about her own affairs.
Pedersen, 71, wanted to spare her three grown children a similar ordeal, so when a friend mentioned Directive Communication Systems, she looked into service. It didn’t take her long to sign up.
The service tracks your online accounts as well as your intentions for each. It might make sense to grant your executor access to your bank account, for example. But perhaps you’d rather quietly wind down your World of Warcraft account. No need for your survivors to know how badly you jonesed to max out all your artifact weapons in WoW: Legion.
One of DCS’s neatest features is a browser extension that prompts you to add accounts as you create them on the web, creating a running list of your digital property. The list will save your survivors the trouble of rooting out your online life.
“When you’re depressed and sad and grieving, that’s not something you really want to do,” says Pedersen, who has a mix of banking and utility accounts, and is a member of a handful of social media sites.
How to make her passing easier on family and friends is a big motivation for Shears, who spends her time mudlarking, or searching for treasure in the mud of the River Thames at low tide, and is half of a DJ duo called Business Fish Disco.
She’s already written final messages, which she’s updated and edited several times, for DeadSocial to send to her loved ones when she dies. The experience, she says, gives her confidence her loved ones will have a reminder of how she felt about them, even if she can’t deliver it herself.
“To know it’s going to be all right,” Shears says, “does reassure me and bring me comfort.”