Technology doesn't just complicate our lives, it also does a number on our deaths.
Imagine the challenge of accounting for all of your digital assets once you've shuffled off to Buffalo. Even if you consider your e-mail, text messages, and social-media posts disposable, you've probably stored photos, videos, and very personal documents on one or more Web services. You probably want to bequeath some or all of these items to family and friends.
If you run an online business, ensuring a smooth transition in the event of your demise becomes even more important. To ease the burden on the people you leave behind, take a little time to make your final digital arrangements. Here's a look at several Web services designed to help you get your life all sewed up.
Do your family one last favor: Make a will
Having a will won't make your life any easier. After all, you'll be dead when the will is executed. But dying without a valid will ("intestate" in legalese) complicates matters for the people you leave behind.
What constitutes a valid will varies from state to state and country to country. If your estate is valuable or you have particular ideas about how you want your possessions distributed after your death, your best bet is to consult an attorney who specializes in estate planning.
On the other hand, if you're like me and barely have to nickels to rub together (mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be bloggers), a generic will based on a template may meet your postmortem needs. The challenge is finding a truly free and valid will form among all the false claims.
Note that these sites insist they do not offer legal advice and recommend that you consult an attorney, which for some people defeats the purpose. I will echo that I am not offering legal advice and you should talk to an estate-planning professional if you're not sure the free testamentary route will meet your needs.
One more caveat: Considering the highly personal nature of the information you provide these services, you have to make sure the sites guarantee confidentiality. Even if the services promise not to collect or share your "personally identifiable information," it's safer to download and print a generic will form and fill in the information with an old-fashioned pen rather than to share your sensitive data.
AllLaw.com offers a printable, fill-in-the-blank will form, but to get to the form you have to scroll past large ads for a $70 will-creation form, a $67 will-creation software package, and another $170 "online form" for creating a living trust. The page also promises a "printable will document download," but the free will document that appears below these prominent ads isn't downloadable: you have to copy and paste it into a text file. The only download links are for the fee-based products.
LawInfo provides a free Web form for creating a simple will. If you would prefer to use the form without sharing your personal information with the site, click the "sample" link to open a browser window containing the text version of the will form that you can copy and paste into a text editor, then print and fill out by hand.
Seriously blurring the free/not-free line is LegalDocs, which claims to offer an online questionnaire you can use to "obtain a Last Will and Testament free of charge," but if you want a "final, completed document, ready for viewing and instant printing (or Save-to-File)" you need to pay $10. The free service is intended only for "educational" purposes.
One site that appears to live up to its name is Wills for Free, which serves residents of the U.S. and Canada, with the exception of people living in Louisiana and Quebec. The site uses a multistep online questionnaire to prepare the draft of your will. In addition to viewing and printing your will, you can prepare and print a will cover page, a document locator, and a funeral-preferences page. Also offered are an FAQ and legal glossary.
The FreeLawyer service promises "100% Free Will Writing" using a step-by-step wizard it claims can be completed in as little as 15 minutes. The site provides information on when and how you can change or revoke your will, what is required to make your free will valid, how to choose an executor, and how to determine whether a simple will meets your needs.
Pro Se Planning's Legacy Writer service also uses a fill-in-the-blank online interview to create your free will. However, I was thrown by the "100% Money-back Guarantee" displayed prominently at the top of the will-creation page.
Legacy Writer lets you create and print one document for free, but directly under "Free Online Wills" is a promise to "save, receive, and print your document" and to "have your document reviewed by a local attorney." When you click the Prices tab, you find document storage and "free" attorney services require signing up for a plan that costs $10 a month or $90 a year. The site throws the word "free" around like confetti, but nearly all its services require a fee. That is anything but trustworthy.
Sites to help you devise your digital assets
The terms of service for most sites prevent relatives from signing into a dead person's account. According to Mashable's Alissa Skelton, Facebook provides your estate with a download of the account data only if the account holder has provided the company with prior consent, or if "mandated by law."
The Facebook Help site explains how and why accounts of deceased people are memorialized, and how to apply for release of a dead person's account information, which the company points out "will require you to obtain a court order."
Earlier this month CNET's Donna Tam described Google's Inactive Account Manager that lets you tell the service to delete data after a set period of inactivity, and to send your data to select "trusted contacts."
While several states have enacted laws governing how a person's online accounts may be accessed after they die, a uniform law remains years away. Rather than wait for legislatures or the services themselves to offer a uniform method of handling online account information after the person's death, you can designate someone as your online proxy by providing them with your IDs and passwords. That way they can sign into the services in your stead and then retrieve or delete information prior to deactivating the accounts altogether.
The Australian site Life Insurance Finder provides a three-step "before you die" checklist for protecting your digital assets. Step one is to identify where you've stored your digital belongings.
Once you've accounted for your online information, you have to choose an executor or sign up for one of the many services that specialize in digital-asset management, such as Legacy Locker or SecureSafe. These fee-based services promise to serve as a "digital safe-deposit box," as Legacy Locker refers to it, allowing you to assign beneficiaries for each of your online accounts, as well as securely store your valuable documents.
The services are triggered by notifications from the contacts you designate and verify beforehand. For example, the AssetLock service lets you set the minimum number of your "Recipients" required to sign in before sending your post-mortem messages and instructions and releasing your secure information. The service costs from $10 to $80 a year, or from $60 to $240 for a "lifetime" membership.
(Keep in mind that with such one-time deals the service's lifetime is likely to expire long before the member's.)
For people who have assets in several countries, the Canadian site Parting Wishes offers wills, powers of attorney, and expatriate wills valid in the U.S., Canada, England, and Wales. It also provides living wills valid in the U.S. and Canada, as well as funeral wishes, final messages, and memorials.
Prices start at $19 CAD for 10 years of unlimited updates (minus the will, power of attorney, and living will) to $186 CAD for unlimited lifetime updates and access to all the site's services.
If you prefer the do-it-yourself approach to preparing your online accounts for your demise, Gigaom's Dawn Foster offers practical advice based on her experiences after her father's sudden death. In particular, be sure someone close to you has access to your IDs and passwords, information about your work associates or customers, and the ability to use your home computers and networks.
An uncredited article on the legal site Lexology identifies possible sources of digital assets: movies, photos, and artwork; medical or genetic information; financial service accounts; business accounts; and social-media accounts.
The article points out that electronic signatures and witnessing are not valid for estate planning, "so any service offering that may be of little or no value." Ink signatures on paper documents are the way to go.
Just because you're dead doesn't mean you don't have something to say
Once you're satisfied your digital accounts will be accounted for when you ride off into the sunset, you can prepare your adioses to loved ones, associates, and anyone else you've a mind (or not) to address.
The free MyWonderfulLife service lets you create a "book" containing your funeral wishes, photo albums, and a list of possessions, complete with the stories behind the items. You nominate from one to six persons as "angels." If they accept, they are instructed to notify the service in the event of your passing and to help carry out your last wishes. Every six months the angels receive reminders to keep their contact information updated.
The site also lets you write your own obituary and design your memorial marker. Its funeral resources include planning ideas, example funerals, music and readings appropriate for the occasion, and a printable survivor checklist for immediately after death, funeral arrangements, obituaries, and before and after the funeral.
Where MyWonderfulLife takes an alpha-to-omega approach to planning for your last bow, the free ifidie.org focuses on sending notes and letters to friends and family. After you write your correspondences, they're stored securely by the service, which claims to have ample experience encrypting sensitive data on Web servers.
You designate certain recipients as SafeGuards who are aware that you've written them a letter to be read after your death. Once a SafeGuard attempts to read their letter, a text or e-mail is sent to you notifying you of the attempt. If you don't respond within two weeks, the service contacts your other SafeGuards to determine whether you're still alive. If none of them replies in the affirmative within another two weeks (extendable to four months), your letters will be released.
If you're willing to pay $20 a year, the Death Switch service lets you attach files to as many as 30 messages, each sent to up to 10 recipients. The service prompts you to enter your password on a regular basis. If you don't respond by a predetermined time and after repeated attempts, your messages are sent.
Somewhere between ifidie.org and Death Switch is Dead Man's Switch. For a one-time fee of $20, the service will send up to 100 messages to as many as 100 recipients after failing to get an e-mail response from you after the time period you designate, but no longer than 60 days (although you can delay the notifications when you know you'll be unavailable).
Few sounds are more evocative than the voices of loved ones. For $50, the Voice Library provides up to five hours of recording time and unlimited listening time, 24-7, for five years. You decide who can listen to the voice recordings, which you can record directly by calling the service's toll-free phone number, record directly from the Web site, or record on a computer or MP3 player and upload to the service.
Likewise, you can listen to the audio files by calling a toll-free number, listening on the site itself, or downloading the files to a computer or MP3 player. If you reach your five-hour recording limit, you have to pay another $50 for five more hours, and your subscription is extended another five years.
A memorial that promises eternity
There's nothing new about online memorials for loved ones, but the nonprofit Chronicle of Life promises to "save personal memories forever," and they aren't kidding. (Of course, who would ever be able to verify such a claim?)
Chronicle of Life calls itself the first trustworthy digital repository for personal data. To earn the designation, the service must satisfy "a stringent list of requirements developed by the main governmental and research libraries in the world." It uses RAID 10 redundancy to protect the data stored on its hard drives, and it is financed by an endowment fund restricted to paying out only investment income.
Plans range from 50MB to 1GB for one-time fees ranging from $20 to $190; additional storage space costs 20 cents per megabyte. You decide which files you want to share with the public, with only certain friends and family, or with no one. Considering the price of storage, the service may not be practical for preserving videos.
LifeNaut is a site straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Like Chronicle of Life, you upload your personal images, documents, and videos into a digital archive, or Mindfile, that will be "preserved for generations." Then you use geomapping, timelines, and tagging to organize the archive into a self-portrait that future generations can access.
During your lifetime you choose whether and with whom to share your personal information. The service is free, although it accepts donations.
Things really get interesting when you join with others to create a Multi-User Mindfile, which is a digital recreation of an historic figure or descendant. LifeNaut's ultimate goal is to collect enough information to allow future software to "replicate an individual's consciousness," and then to transfer that consciousness "into a body of some sort."
You can also create a Biofile that collects and preserves your living cells "for an indefinite period of time." The idea is that future discoveries in ectogenesis will allow a new body to be created from the cell sample and your Mindfile downloaded to it.
I love it when people think big.