We’re all going to die someday, but the same can’t be said for our online accounts. Some will persist forever, others might expire due to inactivity, and some have preparations in place for when you pass away. So, let’s have a look at what happens to your online accounts when you go offline forever.
A State of Digital Purgatory
The easiest answer to the question of what happens to your online accounts when you die is “nothing.” If Facebook or Google is never notified of your death, your profile and inbox will remain there indefinitely. Eventually, they might be removed due to inactivity, depending on the operator’s policy and your own preferences.
Some jurisdictions might attempt to regulate who can access the digital assets of someone who has died or is otherwise incapacitated. This will vary depending on where in the world the account holder was (or is) located, and could even require legal challenges to resolve. You’ll likely be notified of this by the service operator since they must comply with local laws first and foremost.
Unfortunately, expired accounts often become the target of thieves who take advantage of the compromised passwords and outdated security practices used by their deceased owners. This can cause great distress to family members and friends, and it’s why networks like Facebook now have built-in safeguards.
Two scenarios usually play out when someone with an internet presence passes away: either the accounts exist in a state of digital purgatory, or the account holder explicitly passes on ownership or login details. Whether or not that account can still be used depends ultimately on the service operator, and these policies differ quite wildly.
If you were hoping to pass on a digital library of movies and music, then you might be disappointed to hear that this is often forbidden in the terms and conditions. Or, if a family member needs information stored in your inbox, they might have to provide a subpoena or court order to gain access.
What Do the Tech Giants Say?
The good news is that many provide users with tools that allow them to decide what happens to their accounts and who gets to access them after they die. The bad news is that most accounts deem that content, purchases, usernames, and other associated data cannot be transferred.
Google, Gmail, and YouTube
Google owns and operates some of the biggest services and storefronts on the internet, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Photos, and Google Play. You can use Google’s Inactive Account Manager to make plans for your account in case of your death.
This includes when your account should be considered inactive, who can access it and what they can access, and whether or not your account should be deleted. In the event of someone passing who hasn’t used the Inactive Account Manager, Google lets you submit a request to close accounts, request funds, and obtain data.
Google states that it is unable to provide passwords or other login details, but will “work with immediate family members and representatives to close the account of a deceased person where appropriate.”
Since Google owns YouTube, and YouTube videos can continue to earn revenue even if the channel belongs to someone who has passed away, Google might pass on revenue to eligible family members or legal next of kin.
Social media giant Facebook now allows users to nominate “Legacy contacts” to manage their accounts should they pass away. You can do this using your Facebook account settings, and Facebook will notify anyone who you specify.
Doing so requires that you decide between memorializing your account or permanently deleting it. When an account is memorialized, the word “Remembering” appears before the name of the person, and many account features are restricted.
Memorialized accounts remain on Facebook, and the content that they shared remains shared with the same groups. Profiles don’t appear in friend suggestions or the “People you may know” section, nor do they trigger birthday reminders. Once an account is memorialized, nobody can log in again.
Legacy contacts can manage posts, write a pinned post, and remove tags. Cover and profile pictures can also be updated, and friend requests can be accepted. They cannot log in or post regular updates from that account, read messages, remove friends, or make new friend requests.
Twitter doesn’t have any tools for deciding what happens to your account when you die. The service has a 6-month window for inactivity, after which your account will be deleted.
Your Apple accounts will be terminated when you die. The “No Right of Survivorship” clause in their terms and conditions (which can differ between jurisdictions) states:
Unless otherwise required by law, You agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death.
Once Apple receives a copy of the death certificate, your account will be deleted along with all associated data. That includes photos in your iCloud account, movie and music purchases, apps that you have bought, and the contents of your iCloud Drive or iCloud inbox.
We recommend setting up Family Sharing so that you can share photos and other purchases with family members, since trying to rescue photos from a deceased account will likely prove fruitless. If you need to notify Apple of someone’s death, then the best way to do so is the Apple Support website.
If Apple doesn’t receive confirmation of your death, then your account should remain intact (at least for the short term). Passing on Apple account credentials upon your death would allow friends and family members to access accounts in your stead, if only temporarily.
Microsoft and Xbox
Microsoft seems pretty open to allowing surviving family members or next of kin access to the account of someone who has died. The official terms state that “If you know the account credentials, you can close the account yourself. If you don’t know the account credentials, it will be closed automatically after two (2) years of inactivity.”
Much like other services, if Microsoft never learns of your passing, then the account should remain active for two years at least. Just like Apple, Microsoft provides no right of survivorship, so games (Xbox) and other software purchases (Microsoft Store) cannot be transferred between accounts. Once the account has been closed, the library will disappear with it.
Microsoft states that it requires a valid subpoena or court order to consider whether or not it will release a user’s data, which includes email accounts, cloud storage, and anything else stored on their servers. Microsoft is, of course, bound by any local laws that state otherwise.
Just like Apple and Microsoft (and virtually anyone who licenses software or media), Valve doesn’t let you pass on your Steam account when you die either. Since you’re only purchasing software licenses, and these licenses cannot be sold or transferred, they expire when you do.
You can pass on your login details when you die and Valve might never know. If they catch wind of this, they will surely terminate the account, including any purchases you might have made after “inheriting” it.
Share Your Passwords When the Time Comes
The easiest way of ensuring that your accounts are at least managed by someone you trust is to pass on the login credentials directly. Service providers might still decide to terminate the account when they learn of the owner’s passing, but loved ones will have a head start in collecting any photos, important documents, and anything else they need.
By far the best way of doing this is to use a password manager. You can store all of your passwords in one safe place so that you only need to pass on one set of login credentials. Keep in mind that two-factor authentication could also mean that access to your smartphone or a set of backup codes is necessary.
You can put all of this information in a legal document to be disclosed only in the event of your death.