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Social media and the afterlife

‘Death tech’ helps manage your digital legacy.

Have you made a list of all your social media accounts? Does a loved one know where you do online banking or hold digital assets? Have you chosen someone to gain access to your phone once you’re gone?

The effects of a global pandemic have hit every corner of our lives, from the workplace to the wallet; from our physical health to a realization of our mortality. Coming to terms with that last factor has prompted more people than normal to create a will – particularly online – during COVID. Some online will creation sites cite three to four times more traffic since the pandemic hit.

Christian Courier interviewed Daniel Goldgut, co-founder and CEO of Epilogue, a Canadian online will and estate planning tool, Jessie Vaid and Sachin Bhalla, co-founders of ReadyWhen, and Marinus Koole, senior stewardship consultant at Christian Stewardship Services, to find out more. After all, most Canadians know that having a will is important. But our “digital legacy” is important too, and it’s only getting more complicated.

“We are digital humans now,” Goldgut says. “This is the start of figuring out a very, very complicated world that is going to continue to evolve.” To help clients make decisions and manage their digital legacy, Epilogue just launched its “Social Media Will” for free.

“Now, more than ever, people are living their lives online,” Goldgut says. “It’s so important that your reputation is managed or handled in a certain way; it’s a new piece of you that will continue to exist when you’re gone. You enter into an agreement with a company during your lifetime. . . . The rules are different when you die.”

Start-ups and end-of-life companies delving into this space, which Goldgut calls your “social afterlife,” have been dubbed “death tech” – part of a new industry responding to end-of-life questions when it comes to our digital identity.

Social media profiles, online banking accounts, digital assets, email, points cards, photos on our phones, online subscriptions and more are all part of a person’s digital legacy, and should be considered when planning a will and estate.

Online options

Despite the importance of having a will, only 51 percent of Canadians have created one, according to an Angus Reid poll. While traditionally younger people delay making a will because they think death is not a pressing concern, COVID-19 has shown us that life is unpredictable. Goldgut sees the Social Media Will, which approaches one aspect of estate planning from a digital standpoint, as a promising way to get young people on board.

“Thinking about our digital legacy actually acts as a gateway into having a comprehensive will and estate,” he says, noting it can start the process of thinking about key decisions. “We wanted to create a way for people to understand what options exist.”

“Technology is ingrained in our lives,” says Sachin Bhalla, CMO at ReadyWhen, an online estate planning and storage platform. “We have to figure out how to handle it when we’re gone.”

Faith focus

Considering our digital legacy can have implications for how we live our lives online right now. Are we conducting ourselves as followers of Christ? Once you’re gone, your online life lives on, says Koole – what will yours say about you?

“People don’t think about what they’re posting online; they just post,” says Koole. “There isn’t the realization that this is actually their legacy that they’re putting out there.”

He says a positive side effect of living our lives online is that people are having conversations around what happens in the digital space after they’re gone. He says even charitable giving is shifting, with people giving immediately because they can do so online, rather than saving it for an end-of-life act.

COVID-19 has helped break down the stigma of talking about death and mortality – “it’s brought it to the forefront and made the conversation more normal,” according to Koole. As Christians, acknowledging death is part of our faith.

“The life of mortals is like grass,” writes the Psalmist, “they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Ps. 103:15-16)

ReadyWhen includes the option to add a final message or video that can be shared with loved ones once you’re gone, and Koole encourages his clients at CSS to write letters or otherwise leave a message for family and friends. “Wills are pretty dry documents,” says Koole, noting that he knows a woman who writes an annual letter to her children on the anniversary of their baptism. “Leaving a personal message is so meaningful.”

Generational handoff

CEO Jessie Vaid hopes ReadyWhen will prompt people to start thinking about their estate much earlier than they normally do – as early as age 30, he says – and then sharing the information with loved ones.

When Sachin Bhalla’s parents died, he was going through old files, throwing out stuff he didn’t need, when a key dropped out of a folder. It was the key to a safety deposit box containing $40,000 in jewelry – something Bhalla wasn’t even aware existed.

“Over the next two decades, there will be $68 trillion transferred through generational wealth globally as the older generation passes,” says Bhalla. “So there is the idea of what to do with the money, but also, how do we make it easier?”

Part of the issue is that people don’t track their online activity. Once you ask people to make a list, “the lightbulbs start going on,” says Vaid.
“All of a sudden,” adds Koole, “there are 150 things on that list.”

“The more information you can provide, the greater the chance your online presence will be handled the way you want,” says Koole.

Bhalla uses the phrase “digital stewards” for young people who proactively manage their parents’ online lives. The ReadyWhen app, for example, prompts users to think not only about social media accounts but also about automatic payments that should be cancelled, points cards that should be saved, online bank accounts and credit cards. “Don’t make your loved ones go on a scavenger hunt, having to be document detectives,” says Vaid.

The tech world changes so quickly that it’s difficult to make predictions, but Bhalla believes that in the next few years, legacy planning is going to become crucial for most apps and online platforms. Goldgut puts it bluntly: “In the next 50 to 100 years,” he says, “there will be more dead people on Facebook than living ones.” Provided the platform lasts that long, “Facebook will be the biggest graveyard in the world.”

Most of us are already uncomfortable with estate planning, and “digital planning and legacy is one more step removed,” Goldgut says. “But tech companies are seeing its importance. The conversation will move forward.” And the process of setting up a ‘digital steward’ for your online affairs can be relatively simple.

“Every day we need to think about what we’re doing with what God has blessed us with,” says Koole. “Our will is our final chance to do that. … And our digital legacy is a piece we need to take care of.”


What Does Social Say?
(Sara Kurfess)

We live a large chunk of our lives in digital spaces. How will these things be handled once you’re gone?

Facebook – You can set permissions for legacy contacts who can archive or manage your memorialized account, which is “a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away.” Legacy contacts have limited access, but can do things like change the profile photo and manage tribute posts. You can also choose to have your account permanently deleted. Something else to consider: Facebook currently locks privacy settings after death; therefore, whatever is available to be viewed now can also be seen once you’re gone.

Twitter – You can give permission to a trusted person to contact Twitter to delete your account. Access to the accounts of deceased persons is not granted, no matter the relation.

Instagram – Like Facebook, the account can be requested to be memorialized or deleted.

LinkedIn – Currently no policy to remove accounts of the deceased. An executor or loved one can request to have the account deleted; otherwise, it remains active.

Google – Offers an Inactive Account Manager, which grants access to an account to a designated person after a set period of time.

Apple – Apple announced in June that they will be launching a Digital Legacy program. The permissions will allow a user to designate people as legacy contacts, who will then be able to access your Apple ID upon your death. This means that a locked phone – often with treasured photos – is no longer inaccessible. It is also suggested that for phones with Touch ID, to add the fingerprint of a trusted loved one so they can gain access to your phone if needed. — AM

  • Amy is CC’s Features Editor and a freelance writer and communicator with a degree in Journalism and 13 years’ experience at the Presbyterian Record. Amy highlights stories about community-building, families and personal faith, along with bigger, in-the-news issues that challenge, teach and inspire. She lives west of Toronto with her two daughters and three guinea pigs.

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