Dealing with a loved one’s digital presence after they're gone: What does our new study reveal?

Lukas Grigas
Cybersecurity Content Writer
digital legacy

What happens to someone's email when they pass? Or how do you close a deceased person's social media profiles? Do the digital pieces of our existence just fade into nothingness or maybe remain out there indefinitely?

These and other questions are no longer just morbid curiosity but rather something that most of us will have to tackle in our lifetime. Taking care of your loved ones digital legacy can be  challenging, not only because of the obvious emotional load but also because you might not know where and how to start. 

Today, we’re diving into the topic of digital legacy and our latest research on the challenges related to its management. 

Research findings

At NordPass, we recently conducted a market study on digital legacy — the online privacy paradox of a deceased person. It revealed that in order to close all accounts of the deceased, you have to equip yourself with loads of different documents, collect as much information about the deceased as possible, and be ready to use all kinds of communication channels.

During the research, we found that about 36% of analyzed online platforms publicly provide guidance on how to manage accounts posthumously. The information presented on their websites or other official channels allowed our team to draw some illustrative conclusions.

First, the process of managing digital legacy is not only filled with red tape but also rather varied across different platforms and services. In some cases, you might be asked to fill out an online form, while in other instances a platform might ask you to contact them via email, phone, post, or even schedule an in-person appointment. 

When you request an account closure for a deceased person, the platforms usually ask for official documentation, including, but not limited, to death certificates, personal identification, and even legal confirmation of the right to manage a deceased’s estate. Researchers noticed that to close down the majority of a deceased’s accounts, you might need to provide over 20 different documents.

It means that, in theory, certain platforms might ask only for, let’s say, your passport, deceased's death certificate, and the last will, while other sites might require completely different documents. This could be an obituary, birth or marriage certificate, last will, power of attorney, a small estate affidavit, or other documents. In certain cases, these documents might be required to be officially translated and notarized, which is yet another burden.

In addition to legal documentation, platforms ask for various information about the deceased. For instance, a full legal name, display name, username, email, phone number, social security number, account number, or full payment information used to pay for the platform’s service. This extended list of required information can be rather overwhelming, especially because we often don’t have ready access to all the details of our loved ones’ online accounts and financial activities. Not knowing these specifics can add to the stress and overall emotional burden during an already difficult time.

While there are many cases when people simply leave their deceased relatives’ or friends’ accounts hanging out there on the internet indefinitely, our researchers also looked into platforms’ policies regarding inactive accounts. They found that a quarter of companies publicly note that they remove inactive accounts. Of those, most do so after two years of inactivity, but some say they remove the accounts only after seven years.

Up to 6% of the analyzed platforms also offer internet users another way to handle online accounts — to memorialize the account of the deceased, which means it remains publicly visible but is marked for people to know the person is deceased. 

Considering the sheer number of online accounts that a person accumulates over their lifetime, many of which are forgotten, the task of completely terminating a person's digital footprint once they pass becomes a challenging, if not all-out, impossible task. Another study that we’ve recently conducted showcased that, on average, a person has around ​​168 passwords on their hands. Unfortunately, even if you have all the necessary documentation and procedural knowledge, the accounts of a deceased person might linger on the internet indefinitely just because you never knew about them, and that’s something that we might need to come to terms with.

Research methodology: The market desk research was conducted by NordPass. The company’s researchers evaluated 100 popular online platforms worldwide, chosen based on Statista and SimilarWeb information.

To conduct this study, researchers looked only at publicly available sources online—platforms’ owned websites or official accounts. They looked for information on how to close deceased accounts and investigated how many platforms provide such information, what procedures they offer, what documents and personal information items they ask for, and what are their policies regarding inactive accounts.

What is digital legacy, and why it’s important 

You can think of digital legacy as a collection of data and overall presence left behind online when someone passes. The data includes social media profiles, email accounts, photos stored online, online shopping accounts, and other digital interactions. Just as physical possessions are part of someone’s life, digital content can also be an inseparable part of an individual’s legacy that needs to be managed once they’re no longer here. 

Emotional importance

Today, the moments we cherish, more often than not, end up stored online. Just think about it: Photos, videos, as well as conversations are stored on social media platforms. When taking care of your loved ones digital legacy, consider whether the loved one wished to terminate their online data or was okay with allowing you to make the choice. 

Quite often, digital legacies, much like traditional wills, can carry substantial financial and legal weight. It is critical to handle such digital assets to ensure that the accounts are appropriately closed or transferred to legal heirs. Failing to do so could lead to legal disputes.

Security concerns

Unsecured digital legacies are prone to breaches and data misuse. Cybercrooks are essentially free to try and access inactive accounts for as long as they like to get their hands on the data behind the account. All that data might be used for identity theft or fraud. Ensuring the security of posthumous accounts protects not only the person’s legacy but also the surviving relatives’ private and financial data. 

Tips and strategies to ease digital legacy management

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re tasked with managing someone's digital legacy, here are some tips to make the complex and emotionally overwhelming process a little bit easier and more efficient. 

Start with financial accounts

When it comes to the first steps in effective digital legacy management and planning, focus on financial accounts first: These include bank accounts, investment portfolios, digital payment apps, and similar. Try to prioritize closing or transferring such accounts to prevent any financial losses or troubles. Furthermore, once you close down the financial accounts, you will also essentially cut out any subscriptions that a deceased person might have had and, by extension, those accounts as well. Taking care of accounts related to finance will likely take up a sizable chunk of time due to excessive red tape associated with finance, but once those accounts are sorted, everything else will go down quicker and easier. 

Advise your loved one to use digital legacy features

Today, quite a few online services and platforms offer distinct features designed to manage accounts once someone passes away. For example, Facebook allows users to appoint a “Legacy Contact,” who can manage a user's account in the event of their death. Apple and Google have also introduced ways to designate individuals who can access the deceased account. Consider having a talk with your loved ones about such features and their importance. 

Secure account information

Using a password manager to manage logins along with other sensitive data is recommended not only for when you are alive and well but as a part of your digital legacy management. Password managers provide storage for passwords and often come equipped with a variety of security features that allow you to protect sensitive data that you might come across while dealing with a deceased’s digital legacy. For instance, NordPass comes with Emergency Access—a feature that allows you to designate an individual who would have access to your NordPass vault in the case of an emergency.

Educate and prepare

These days, it is absolutely critical to be aware of the digital legacy concept; after all, it concerns every one of us. While the topic might be morbid, discussing digital legacies with your family and friends is essential. It's important to encourage them to take their own steps in managing their digital presence as well as to make your loved ones aware of your digital legacy plans.

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