Key points about backing up your loved one's data
Only back up information from financial accounts — you should not be transferring any assets until probate.
Download copies of archived data from subscription services like online photo albums before closing the account
Digital assets like music or games should be left alone until probate.
Unless you have direct access, social media and other digital companies will only give you access to data by following a difficult process.
Make sure the most important information is backed up in multiple places.
When someone you love has passed away, there will be a lot of different aspects of their life to deal with, often during a very emotionally difficult time. Nowadays, in addition to all of our loved one’s physical assets, this means figuring out how to sort out the digital traces they left behind.
Studies estimate that every email address is associated with, on average, 130 different accounts and site logins. If you are tasked with untangling this complex web for your loved one, it can mean discovering what accounts they held, preserving their important data for posterity, and memorializing account profiles or closing them in a graceful and respectful way.
Finding all the accounts
These days many people set up a password manager as part of the plan for their estate, using a program such as 1Password, BitWarden, Apple’s Keychain to save all of their accounts and protect them with one master password. If your loved one did so, they will have left it for you with their will or in a letter of last wishes, and the task of finding and accessing their various accounts will be quite simple.
If your loved one didn’t take such measures, then discovering all the accounts linked to their name can be a challenging task. If you have access to their email account, you will be able to search for emails referencing the accounts, and go to the various websites to request a password reset email for each.
First, it is a good idea to see if you can access their computer or other devices, as you may be able to look at their browser’s saved passwords list. This is usually the best and fastest way to gain access to all of a loved one’s online accounts, but it will be protected by the computer’s login password. If this password is not available, it may be possible to change it using a system recovery partition, or by taking it to a local computer technician or data recovery specialist, who may be able to access the contents of the drive via alternate methods.
In cases where none of this is feasible, look for evidence of what accounts your loved one had in other places, such as bank statements and other mailed information. Once you know what accounts your loved one had, most of the companies will allow you to simply close the account by sending them a few required documents. But if you do not want to close the account immediately, or if there is data within the account that you need or want to preserve, your last option will be to appeal directly to the service owner, such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, or Twitter via their support channels. They will commonly ask for several documents, and in some cases it will take a court order for them to give up the digital assets you’re requesting.
One final approach may be to search for your loved one’s email address in a cybersecurity company’s breach tool, for instance F-Secure’s Identity Theft Checker. This will show you if their email address and password were ever revealed in various hacks and data breaches by sites that failed to secure their user data. You may even be able to recover a lost password via this method, though it is likely it has been changed since the leak was published.
When compiling your list of all their accounts and logins, it will save you time if you enter them all into a spreadsheet where you can organize and categorize each in order of importance. Going through accounts and downloading any information you want or need to keep is a big job, so you’ll want to prioritize the most important accounts and let others wait until later if necessary. Obviously banks, financial institutions, government and sensitive job-related sites should be dealt with first, followed by digital assets, media subscriptions, marketplaces, and stores. Finally, it will be time to deal with social media and publicly viewable resources such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, and so on.
Exercise caution regarding online finances
While it is important to secure web-based financial portals to make sure identity theft is not occurring, you will not have any ability to transfer funds in or out of these accounts. If you or someone else has not yet notified the bank or other financial institution of your loved one’s passing, it is imperative that you do so now. If probate has not yet begun, the accounts will be frozen until the estate executor or administrator is named and they transfer the funds into a new account as part of probate.
If you or someone else has not yet notified the bank or other financial institution of your loved one’s passing, it is imperative that you do so now.
Outside of that very specific transfer, any transfers to unauthorized accounts, even just for safekeeping, could lead to serious liability and criminal penalties. If you gain access to any of your loved one’s web-based financial interfaces, your priority should be to secure the accounts and download or copy any relevant information. But even if you are somehow able to, do not touch any of the assets in any way, which could land you in legal trouble.
Digital assets and subscriptions
Close all subscriptions that you can quickly, in order to avoid recurring fees for services no longer in use. When canceling a service that involves backed up data, such as a photo archive, be sure to download a copy to your own computer or an external hard drive before doing so.
If the data in the account involves digital assets such as music, film, games, or cryptocurrency, it is better to leave the account open until these items can be dealt with as part of probate. Attempting to transfer ownership of these digital assets before probate or if you are not the executor of the estate could involve legal issues.
When it comes to dealing with your loved one’s social media accounts, each company handles the process slightly differently. Many give the family a choice to either deactivate the account and remove it from public view, or “memorialize” their profile and inform other users of their passing. If you need data from within the account, you will likely not be given access, but the platform may have a process through which they send you the relevant information. As with email providers and other tech companies, this may require a lengthy process and even a court order.
If you have access to the account, you will be able to download any data and close the account yourself, if you choose to. Consider carefully whether you want to post anything on their profile. Some families choose to write an obituary as a final post, while others find this to be jarring or even distasteful.
Before deactivating or closing an account, check the platform’s help pages for instructions on how to “download an archive,” “export user data,” or “back up a copy of my information.” These processes will typically allow you to save all user information such as the texts of posts, photos, video clips, lists of friends and contact information, and so on.
Best practices for backing up data
Make sure to back up your loved one’s most important data securely and in multiple locations. Valuable memories and a lifetime’s creative endeavors can be lost in an instant by a single hard drive failure. Data saved “in the cloud” is safe as long as the company keeping it is reliable, but there is always the chance of an unforeseen mishap. That is why most experts recommend using both.
For the most reliable backup, consider keeping three copies of the most important data. One should be on a device in your home. The second should be on a backup drive, ideally kept in a separate location. The third copy should be on a cloud-based server or backup service.
Your loved one’s digital footprint may be complex and seem formidable at first glance. Take your time when dealing with it, and step away from the screen if you’re feeling overwhelmed. If it’s too big a task on top of all the more immediate concerns of grieving, consider asking a tech-savvy family member to help out when they have time. Your first priority should be processing your feelings and being with family and friends. Your loved one’s data will still be there when you have more emotional energy to deal with it.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
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