Digital estate planning

How to manage your digital assets for when you're gone.

Will your loved ones lose your digital legacy?

We're rapidly accumulating digital assets as we build extensive collections of photos, social media posts, cloud files, websites, lists of passwords and logins, music and movie collections, ebooks ... and the list goes on.

But who will own your digital heritage when you die? And can you bequeath your iTunes library to your kids?

In this article:

Is a DIY will good enough to secure your family's future after you're gone? Find out in our will kit reviews.

Do you 'own' your ebooks and digital music files?

You may be shocked to learn that you don't 'own' the music, movies and ebooks that you've bought online in the same way as you own physical books and other media. When you buy a movie or music file, you're actually buying a license to 'use' the content – and it's for your own use only.

What this means is that you can't bequeath your music or movie collection to loved ones in your will by transferring the ownership of the files from your ID to theirs.

Creating a personal register

If you want to save loved ones the worry of losing your precious digital life at a time when they're dealing with all the immediate issues when someone passes away, some pre-planning of your digital legacy can really help them out.

To start getting a sense of your digital resources, you'll need to create a register. It's basically a list of everything you can think of that comes under the banner of 'digital', organised into relevant categories. The National and State Libraries Australasia has advice on this.

Logins and passwords

Write down the website address along with login and password details for all your online accounts. This will include email, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, blogs and other financial sites, government services, shopping sites, phone and internet accounts, as well as the multitude of other sites you use at any time. Note that banks forbid recording your PIN unless it's adequately disguised. Check the terms and conditions on your bank's website for specific details for your account.

If you've recorded this information on paper, put the document in a home safe or other secure place. If you're going to store the details on your computer, use encryption to protect the document and always run up-to-date security software to protect your files.

Purchased music, movies and ebooks

Next step is to list all of your purchased music, movies, ebooks, digital newspaper and magazine subscriptions including the platforms such as iTunes or Google Play store with login ID and passwords. This will let you (and your loved ones) see what you've got in the way of digital entertainment, but you probably can't just gift them in a will.

Personal photos and videos

Many people have gigabytes of digital photos and videos and they can be spread across Flickr, iCloud, Picassa and Google Photos to name just a few. Then there are likely to be lots of files stored on your home computer or storage drive. It's worth having multiple copies of precious photos on DVD or a store drive and cloud storage. List the platforms where photos and videos are located as well as login details so your family can find and download files.

Cloud storage

Evernote, DropBox, Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive – there are host of cloud storage services where you can have files and other documents stored. You might want to do a bit of housekeeping and clean out any old or unwanted files and then outline what's stored in any cloud storage platform, what's important and what's not worth keeping. Once again, be sure that you note the website link and include login and password details for all sites.

Social media posts

If you're an avid user of social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, then you'll likely have a rather large amount of posts, photos and tweets and other contributions. This virtual life is in its own way a slice of your life and something worth keeping and remembering. Some sites such as Facebook let you pre-decide to have your account memorialised (retained but locked from changes) or deleted when you pass away. Note the URL, login and password for these sites if you want them managed on your behalf.

Save your virtual life with a social media archive

If you're curious about what your profile looks like, then you can create your own archive on some sites such as Facebook.

  • Facebook Archive is a downloadable record of your account to save all the photos, comments and status updates that you've shared.
  • Facebook Memorialisation will automatically lock the profile when Facebook has been notified that someone is deceased, but the site won't provide login information even after death. Accounts can also be deleted.
  • Twitter Archive will download your entire history of tweets and retweets so you can store it for posterity.
  • Google Takeout is a way to archive your information from a range of services including Drive, Photos, Mail and Profile. Accounts can also be deleted. See
  • YouTube Archive will download and save all video uploads in their original file type.

What about an online digital archive?

There are keepsake and storage sites such as YourDigitalFile and LifeMaps that will chronicle your life, and MyVault that offers secure storage. They have individual security provisions, but most allow you and a nominated person to access the information if you're incapacitated.

You should need to prove your identity and the identity of any nominees with the 100-point security check and it should use strong encryption to protect logins and passwords.

We haven't tried any of these sites so we can't recommend them, but we advise you to check their security as well as pricing for ongoing storage. In particular, before you sign up for any secure storage service, read through its privacy statement and contact the site if you need further clarification on how they secure your previous personal information.

See the CHOICE wireless routers review to safely secure your home network.

Online memorialisation 

Many funeral homes are now establishing an online memorial for loved ones. It's a place to leave and share thoughts and photos about somebody who's passed away. These sites can be useful for relatives and friends a distance away who didn't attend the funeral but still want to pay their respect. Heaven Address is a site used by many funeral homes in Australia, while sites like MemorialMatters, Imorial and MuchLoved let you create a public memorial for a loved one or even a public figure or celebrity that you want to remember. 

And if you want to ease loved ones' suffering after you're gone, you can make messages to be sent posthumously – a bit like a letter or video message to be read or viewed after you've departed. Sites such as MyGoodbyeMessage will send pre-prepared notes, emails, videos and other messages to friends and family.

Do you need a digital executor?

A traditional executor is responsible for your will, but it may be worth nominating someone as a digital executor to help manage your digital affairs (although this isn't a legally recognised role). When planning your estate, consider putting an e-register with your official will. Agencies such as the State Trustees of Victoria recommend this to help loved ones manage your accounts. The State Trustees site has further advice on estate planning.

Privacy can potentially be an issue when accessing and managing or controlling someone else's accounts. It could involve dealing with emails, files and other documents that relate to other people. While privacy laws don't apply to deceased people, documents or anything referred to living people are still legally subject to privacy laws. There are commonwealth privacy laws as well as individual state and territory privacy laws.

Tips for managing your digital legacy

  • Transferring ownership of digital assets isn't as straightforward as physical assets such as property.
  • Ownership of digital media such as music and ebooks will depend on the terms of use for the service.
  • Transferring IDs on digital devices such as iPads may require a death certificate and application to the manufacturer.
  • Some online services allow access by authorised agents while others require a death certificate for someone else to access and/or close the account.
  • Check the privacy and security criteria before signing up for any online document storage services.
  • To get help with the best way to preserve your digital legacy, Digital Beyond has helpful articles on many aspect of digital estate planning, and Digital Heritage has a wealth of information on managing your digital legacy.
  • The ACCAN has a paper on digital heritage for consumers.