Managing Your Digital Legacy in Six Steps

Preserving your digital legacy is about managing your digital footprint after you die and preserving memories to leave behind for your loved ones and your community.

Key takeaways:
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    Your digital legacy is the story you leave behind for your family, friends, and community after you’re gone.
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    A well-organized digital footprint helps families easily carry out your electronic and online wishes and enjoy your memory for years to come.
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    You can save your photos, videos, audio recordings, and other keepsakes online so loved ones can see them anytime.
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    Follow these six steps to start organizing and managing your digital legacy.

What is a digital legacy?

Your digital legacy is the story you leave for your family, friends, and community after you’re gone. It’s their way to remember who you were, the stories of your life, and your impact on them.

In the past, people preserved their legacy as printed photos, physical memorabilia, and paper files in their file cabinets and archive boxes. Rather than boxes of keepsakes, a digital legacy saves assets like photos, mementos, online accounts, and files on your computer, your phone, and the Internet.

What is the purpose of a digital legacy?

In today’s world, nearly everyone will leave a digital footprint whether they want to or not. But very few of us work to manage and protect that footprint.

In a 2020 survey, the Digital Legacy Association found that 97% of survey respondents had no plans to protect their digital assets. A 2021 study found that 96% of hospice workers have never discussed the issue with their patients.

The goal of managing your digital legacy is to tell your story and create easy access to memories and assets.

A well-organized digital archive gives you the power to preserve your story. It also allows families to easily carry out your digital wishes and enjoy your memory during the process.

Beginning the journey of managing your digital immortality can be overwhelming. These six steps will help you create and follow a plan to protect your digital afterlife.

Six steps to managing your digital legacy

1. Set a timeframe and make three lists

First, give yourself plenty of time, like a year, to organize your digital assets. As you start the task, think of your digital legacy as your computer and online identity that will live long after you’re gone.

Next, make three exhaustive lists:

  • List every online account you have. These accounts may include social media, email, financial assets, utilities, free and paid subscriptions, cloud storage, websites and blogs, streaming services, purchasing sites, product services, charitable giving – you name it and there’s an online account for it.
  • List your digital devices so your loved ones are aware of each one.
  • List essential files to preserve – like photos, videos, and documents – located on each device.

The goal here is a general list first. You can review, clean, and preserve the items in each list later.

Before moving to the next step, take a deep breath and remember you can adjust your lists and plans at any point.

2. Choose a digital executor

Some people choose a single executor to manage every aspect of their estate after they die. Others choose several executors to oversee different areas. Your digital executor is the person you choose to manage your digital legacy. This appointee should be trustworthy and technologically savvy.

After you choose a digital executor – also called a digital legacy manager – you’ll likely begin thinking of how to leave a well-organized digital footprint for them.

Cleaning and reorganizing your digital assets are cumbersome tasks. You’ll want to delete unnecessary files and organize remaining ones in easy-to-read, dated folders. But you can tackle that task at any time during this process, whatever seems best to you.

On your digital device list, be sure you leave detailed instructions on how to open each device and access the data. For Apple products, you can designate legacy contacts who will have access to your Apple account and devices after you die.

For online accounts, be sure your digital legacy manager will have access to every username, password, and authentication questions required to access the sites.

You can use an online password management tool to encrypt and save every password you use. If you don't want to save passwords online, consider creating a new, updated password spreadsheet and keeping a copy in three secure locations, including one place different from where you live.

Keep in mind weak or reused passwords cause most data breaches. It may be time to change and improve your passwords.

Your digital appointee will have official access after you’re gone. Aim to leave very clear information and instructions. They need to know what to keep, delete, and share with the world, which brings us to the next step.

3. Decide how you want your accounts, devices, and files handled

Each online account and electronic file will need to be closed, consolidated, or memorialized. You can start the process now, but your digital executor will complete the work after you die.

The easiest accounts are those you wish to cancel and close. You can memorialize other accounts, like Facebook and Instagram. Some accounts will require more cleaning, organizing, and consolidation for you and your digital executor. For example, you may want your appointee to close your Amazon Prime account but save the photos you stored there first.

4. Research the policies of each online account

To fully complete step 3, you need to know the policies of your online accounts. Researching each account is time-consuming, so give yourself ample time and begin with the accounts most important to you.

First, consider deleting accounts you rarely use. For the accounts you wish to maintain, follow the sites' directions on naming at least one legacy contact, preferably more.

Make plenty of notes for each site. Your digital legacy manager needs to know how to access each one and what to do with it after you’re gone.

5. Preserve and digitize your memories

Perhaps the most time-consuming but rewarding task in legacy preservation is capturing your life in photos, videos, and memorabilia.

What would you like to leave behind if this was your last day on earth? What would you like to say? What accomplishments do you want to memorialize or even nurture for further growth after you’re gone?

At this point, you’ve likely begun cleaning and organizing the electronic data in your files and online. You can do the same thing with your physical memorabilia by digitizing as much of it as you want.

Begin by deciding what to keep, what to give to loved ones, and what to toss. You can create digital versions of the remaining items by scanning photos and creating videos telling the stories of various keepsakes and family heirlooms.

Be sure to store your digital heirlooms in three different places and formats. For example, you can save them on the Internet, your computer, and a back-up hard drive.

Completing your digital legacy project on your own is time-consuming and requires a scanner for photos and technology for digitizing old videos and tapes. Instead of tackling the task on your own, companies exist to preserve these for you. You simply mail the items to the company, and they will carefully digitize each one.

Two organizations you can trust with your memories are the Permanent Legacy Foundation and Legacy Box.

The Permanent Legacy Foundation will scan items and create an online archive for you. They then return your items in archive-grade boxes for storage. Legacy Box also converts your memories to a digital format and can save them on the Internet, a thumb drive, or a DVD.

Rather than paying Permanent to digitize your old photos and videos, however, you can do the work and upload digitized files on your own. This service allows you to archive your life now instead of waiting for your loved ones to create a memorial after you die. Once you upload your digital files to the site, your memories live in one place, preserved for generations.

Other sites that offer similar preservation services are After Cloud and Keeper (previously named Qeepr).

Cake, Everplans, and My Wishes are websites that help you organize your end-of-life documents and share them with loved ones. In addition, Cake offers free and paid online services to memorialize a loved one after they’re gone and share with friends and family.

Other free memorial sites include Inmemori, Memories, and We Remember. However, these are intended for use after a person dies rather than before.

Online archival services are growing. Here are a few tips on choosing the right one for you:

  • Choose a site that allows you to upload ample data at a reasonable price.
  • Choose one that backs up your data in at least two different ways, also called redundant back-up.
  • Be sure you have permanent access to your data.
  • A good site allows you to share memories now with your community of family and friends.
  • Consider choosing a site that lets you record a message your family listens to after you die.

Finally, make your digital estate plan legal. Like your executor and health proxy, you’ll want to name this person in your Will, an important legal document to complete even if you’re young.

Most legal experts recommend naming your digital executor in your Will but leaving directions in a separate digital estate plan, for two reasons.

A Will becomes public after a person passes, so including sensitive password information in a Will might not be the best option. Also, a digital plan can change frequently. If you have a separate plan for your digital legacy, you can update it easily without needing to update your existing Will.

Depending on the complexity of your estate, it’s always best to consult a lawyer about managing your assets.

Your story is worth preserving

Because this is a monumental task, you may be at different steps with different accounts, files, and devices. That’s okay. Complete the process in a way and a timeframe that works for you.

But remember, death can come to us at any time or age. Share your story now because it’s worth telling and preserving. Start organizing your digital footprint today because it’s gift of kindness to your family.

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