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How to set up legacy contacts for all your online accounts

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It’s not something most people like to think about, but the sooner we start planning what will happen to our online accounts – from social media to smartphones – when we die, the better it will be for our loved ones.

This week, we’ll go over some of the places you can set up legacy contacts and what to do if they’re not offered or were never added.

Access to online accounts after death: Can you please comment on the best way to set up accounts and passwords (or a password manager?) so that another (trusted) person can access someone’s accounts who suddenly became disabled or died?

— Deborah Johnson, Maryland

Many tech companies have added features to address this issue, most recently Apple, which rolled out legacy contacts in its recent iOS and macOS. software updates this year. However, there is no industry standard for how they work, so evaluate each one before activating.

You will want to consider a few important details:

  • Only add someone you trust and want to be in charge of your digital legacy.
  • Revisit these settings every two years in case there have been changes in your personal life, such as a death, divorce, or a friendship that isn’t as close as it used to be.
  • Watch what, exactly, you’ll be granting them access to, as some types of data might be more revealing than you’re comfortable with, such as emails or location history.
  • Consider a separate backup plan like sharing your passwords or accessing a password manager, which can help them with accounts that don’t include legacy options or access data that isn’t not intended for transmission, such as DRM (digital rights management) protected music and movies.
  • Inform the person you are adding that they are the contact (they will often receive an automated email) and, if you have a will, consider including any legacy contact documentation.

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How to add digital legacy contacts

Apple’s legacy contact settings can be configured from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac computer as long as you’re using recent operating systems (iOS 15.2, iPadOS 15.2, or macOS 12.1). On your iOS device, go to Settings → tap your name at the top → Password & Security → Legacy Contact. On your Mac, it’s also in Settings → Password & Security → Legacy Contact.

The way Apple has set this up won’t be for everyone. First there’s the process, which begins with a trip to Apple Digital Heritage Access Page. You’re going to get an “access key” for that person which includes a QR code and a text string that you can print or send to them via encrypted Text Messages. Only people who also use Apple devices will be able to use the digital version of the key; you will have to print it for someone else. They will need this key and a copy of your death certificate to access your data.

The person will have access to a wide range of data, and there is no way to customize what they can see. If you have it, they will be able to recover your messages, photos and files stored on iCloud. They will see your call history, email, health data, Notes app content, contacts, calendars, voice memos, Safari bookmarks, and reminders. They can also access all iCloud backups.

Then there’s what you can’t pass on. Any files you purchased through Apple, such as albums, songs, books, and movies, will not be included. Unlike a parent’s record collection or boxes of mixtapes, digital music purchased online cannot be passed on to the next generation.

If you are an Android user or just use Google products, you can set up something called a inactive account manager.

There are a few key differences in how Google handles this type of backup contact. First of all, it’s not just about waiting for someone to proactively try to access an account. Instead, you can set it to automatically contact your contacts after a set amount of time — anywhere from three months to 18 months — after it’s detected that you’re no longer using your Google products.

Unlike Apple’s Legacy Contact, Google lets you choose exactly which categories of data are included and will be available for your backup contact. It’s a long list and includes 52 options, from the basics like contacts and photos to technical details like “Android Device Setup Service”.

Google lists some purchased files from the Play Store, including movies, TV shows, and books.

A nice touch from Google is the ability to add an auto-reply email if your account becomes inactive.

Facebook’s Legacy Contact was designed to give loved ones a way to close or “remember” someone’s Facebook page with a tag, but not post as them. There is an additional setting that will allow this person to download a backup of your Facebook data, including photos and profile information, but not your messages. To set up an old Facebook contact, go to Settings and privacy → Settings → General → Memorization settings. There’s also an option for Facebook to delete your account if you die, although someone will need to notify the company of your death.

A different approach is to ensure that your usernames and passwords are passed on to your family so that they can access and close the accounts directly. This approach also involves passing on a lot of personal information, so consider what will be included and your own comfort level.

If you have a password manager, you can ensure that the person you choose has the master password(s) to access it. Bitwarden Password Manager has an option called Emergency Access which allows you to add a backup contact who can request access to your account. This is included with Premium accounts or available for a fee.

Many great password managers don’t have built-in legacy contacts. Dashlane told us that one way to handle these situations is to create a secure note with your credentials and share it with someone you trust through the app.

A less technical approach to transmitting passwords is to leave a password-protected spreadsheet with the non-financial logins, saved locally on a computer (don’t forget to also leave your computer’s password somewhere go). Or keep a simple logbook if you don’t have many.

Access accounts without old contacts

It’s still possible to access someone’s accounts after they die, even if they haven’t added you as a legacy contact. The process varies from company to company. Apple, for example, requires you to submit a court order it proves that you are the person who legally inherits their information. Google has a form you can fill out to request deletion of an account or to try to access its data, which will also require you to upload a death certificate and ID and possibly other documents. Instagram has a form you can fill in to commemorate an account. Twitter doesn’t allow account access after someone passes, but it does have a form to request deletion.