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Ask Help Desk: How to set up legacy contacts for your online accounts

Make sure family can access important data or photos after you’re gone

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

It’s not a topic most people like to think about, but the sooner we start planning for what happens to our online accounts — from social media to smartphones — when we die, the better it is for loved ones.

This week, we’re going to run through some of the places you can set up legacy contacts, and what to do if it’s not offered or was 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?) such that another (trusted) person can get access to the accounts of someone who suddenly became disabled or died?

— Deborah Johnson, Maryland

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

You’ll want to consider a few important details:

  • Only add someone you trust and who you’d want to be in charge of your digital legacy.
  • Revisit these settings every couple of years in case there have been changes in your personal life, like a death, divorce or friendship that is no longer as close as it was.
  • Look at what, exactly, you will be granting them access to as some kinds 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 access to a password manager, which can help them with accounts that don’t include legacy options or getting to data that isn’t designed to be passed on, like DRM (digital rights management) protected music and movies.
  • Inform the person you’re adding that they’re the contact (they’ll often get 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

Apple’s legacy contact settings can be set up from an iPhone, iPad or Mac computer as long as you’re running the recent operating systems (iOS 15.2, iPadOS 15.2 or macOS 12.1). On your iOS device, go to Settings → tap your name on 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 starts with a trip to Apple’s Digital Legacy access page. You’re going to get an “access key” for that person that includes a QR code and a string of text that you can print or send to them via an encrypted Messages text. Only people who also use Apple devices will be able to use the digital version of the key; you’ll have to print it out for anyone else. They’ll 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’s no way to customize what they can see. If you have it, they’ll be able to get your messages, photos and files stored in iCloud. They’ll see your call history, email, health data, what’s in the Notes app, contacts, calendars voice memos, Safari bookmarks and reminders. They may also access any iCloud backups.

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

Google

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

There are a few key differences with the way Google handles this kind of backup contact. First off, it’s not just waiting for someone to proactively try to access an account. Instead, you can set it to automatically contact your people after a set amount of time — from three months to 18 months — after it’s detected you’re no longer using your Google products.

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

Google does list some files purchased from the Play store, including movies, TV and books.

One nice touch from Google is the ability to add an autoreply email should your account become inactive.

Facebook

The Facebook legacy contact was designed to give loved ones a way to close or “memorialize” someone’s Facebook page with a label, but not post as them. There is an additional setting that will allow that person to download a backup of your Facebook data, including photos and profile information but not your messages. To set up a Facebook legacy contact, go to Settings & Privacy → Settings → General → Memorialization Settings. There’s also an option to have Facebook delete your account if you die, though someone will need to inform the company of your passing.

Pass on your passwords

A different approach is to make sure your logins and passwords are passed down to your family so they can access and shut down accounts directly. This approach also involves handing over a lot of personal information, so consider what will be included and your own comfort level.

If you have a password manager, you can make sure your chosen person has the main password or passcodes to access it. The password manager Bitwarden has an option called Emergency Access that lets you add a backup contact who can request access to your account. This is included with Premium accounts or available for a fee.

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

A lower-tech approach to handing down passwords is to leave a password protected spreadsheet with the nonfinancial logins, saved locally to a computer (don’t forget to leave your computer password someplace as well). Or keeping a simple notebook of logins if you’re not dealing with many.

Accessing accounts without legacy contacts

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

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