It’s a sign of the strange times we live in that even death isn’t quite as absolute as it used to be. Everyone still dies eventually, but their carefully-crafted online personae live on. These digital remains can be a nice memorial or a disturbing remnant, depending on how well a person has prepared.

So it’s worth taking a few minutes to think about what happens to your online life when your real one’s over. To help you out, we’ve put together a 12-step guide to getting your virtual affairs in order. It’s a little macabre, yeah, but if you can get over the heebie-jeebies, it’ll be time well spent. 

1. Start Taking Inventory

Starting now, write down every password protected online asset that you use, as well as the passwords used to access them. If you’re using a password manager such as KeePass, this job shouldn’t take long. Include email accounts, website hosting passwords, social networking log-ins, online banking security questions, etc. Collect this information for a week or two, perhaps as long as a month, depending the size of your online presence.  Make sure the information that you collect is secured on an encrypted flash drive or zip it with a password and send it to yourself attached to an email. At some point you’ll have to assign an executor to look after everything, but for now, concentrate on getting the information in one place.
2. Get Your Finances in Order

Most of what you do online is free. One thing that isn’t is also the one thing that you might want to have outlive you. Websites cost money every year, both the hosting and the domain name registration. Even if you don’t set someone up to maintain your sites, the hosting and registration will likely be on auto-renewal. Planning for this now will make all the difference between being able to keep your cool domain name for perpetuity or losing it forever. OK, you won’t care, but your kids might!

Most web hosting and domain registration fees are charged to a credit card listed with each account. If you have the sense to prepare for your death by recording the password and log-in information, then it’s simply a matter of changing the credit card information online with the hosting company. Charges will now be put on another card and the site will roll along peacefully. If you don’t work out all of this beforehand, then your executor might find it too difficult to work through the maze of death certificates and legal issues that will confront them and both your site and your dot-whatever-name will vanish into the void. Even if you don’t want to maintain the site, and you have a cool domain name, your executor could theoretically sell it and distribute the funds among your heirs.

So much for paying money out. What about funds that come in (such as from ads on a site you run)? If you have given out the passwords to your executor, it’s a simple matter to change the account information with Google or whoever else is paying out the dough on a simple ad revenue site.

However, if there are items are being sold and a credit card company or Paypal is involved, it’s vital that you sort all of this out with your financial institution beforehand. This is where a real will is needed to divvy up the money after you die. If there is going to be continuing income for someone, figure out how you’re going to give them access to the website and to the money that the site generates.

3. Compose Your Famous Last Words

Now is the time to reflect on friends and relatives and attempt to say in words what they all mean to you. Notes, emails and written documents are welcome and probably will be treasured for longer than you might think. Jot down a list of the important people in your life, write a personal message to each one and lock it all up in email drafts or in a folder in your documents. Pass the information on to your executor and relax. Hopefully after this is done, you’ll actually live a bit longer. Happy thoughts add years to your life, right?

4. Avoid Awkward Situations

While you might be right up there with the Dalai Lama in purity, almost everyone has things they’d rather have die with them. Before you give someone else access to all of the details of your online life, get rid of anything that might create some frowns when you’re gone. References to anyone named Bambi should probably be ditched now. If you’re a member of any sketchy websites, adjust your email settings for them before they have a chance to blemish your wholesome reputation. Think of marking updates from these sites as junk-mail to keep them out of your inbox. We’re just sayin’.

5. Maintain Your Websites

The hours that you’ve spent tuning your meta tags and keywords will all be in vain unless you pass on the torch to someone else before you permanently lose your connection. To avoid the dreaded 404, write down all of the hosting details, passwords, renewal dates, etc. With a major hosting firm, the transition will be seamless, provided that your successor has all of the necessary information. Ad revenue must also be considered. A joint bank account helps to keep this seamless as well. Remember to save any templates and resources that you used to create the sites. Maintaining and updating your sites will be much easier if your designated designer has all the information they need. Maybe some cash for a web design course for your executor wouldn’t be out of line either.

6. Prepare Your Facebook Account

If you get to know the privacy settings in Facebook, you can tune your final exit now, leaving your executor the simple task of tagging and adjusting the settings after you’re gone. Write your message in a note, scroll down to “Note Privacy” and set it to ‘only me’. Once you’ve signed out for good, have your executor reset the privacy, allowing the pertinent person or persons to see your note. Maybe you could do a final photo album. Create it, lock it up and let your executor take care of it.

6.b. Dealing With Someone Else’s Facebook Account

If you have missed the boat you won’t be reading this, right? But if someone you know, a relative or a close friend, has recently died and you can’t face seeing their profile languish unattended, here’s what you can do. Head over to this URL. You’ll find Facebook’s ‘Report a deceased person’s profile’ form. Fill it out, making sure you provide the link to an obituary or a news article that confirms the death. The friendly Facebook folks say that “Memorialising the account removes certain sensitive information and sets privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the Profile or locate it in search. The Wall remains, so that friends and family can leave posts in remembrance.”

If the thought of some gibroni at Facebook rummaging through your profile (as if they don’t already) scares the hell out of you then this is all the more reason to get your act together and start this whole process yourself.
Myspace will do the same thing : but you’ll need a death certificate or obituary and be ‘next of kin’, not just a friend.

Google, and all of their linked sites and services such as Gmail, Orkut and Google Chat, offers something similar : but you must prove that you are the legal representative of the deceased person.

Do you see a pattern here? Instead of letting someone else manage your profiles for you, get off your ass and figure out what you want done with them while you’re still chatting it up here on earth. If you prepare everything, then your friends and family don’t have to deal with nasty things like death certificates and the legal red tape that is involved with proving someone is dead.

7. Record Your Final Rant on YouTube

If you’ve got fans and subscribers on a video site, record a video that sums up what you’re feeling about them, the world in general or anything else that comes to mind. Adjust the privacy settings and have your executor publish it after your last ‘Cut’! You might want to disable comments,too, in case some wise ass says something stupid. Just hope that it doesn’t go viral. 

8. Create a Safe Email Account

Just in case your executor is tempted to send out emails pretending to be you, create a neutral account, and move your contact list over to it. Write some draft emails to different contact groups, mark them accordingly and put the account password with full instructions in your package. You might want to send a pre-death email from this account to everyone on your list, with an explanation, of course, in order for everyone to mark the new account as safe and not junk. Remember to update your contact list on a regular basis.

9. Keep it current.

Once you’ve got everything organized, emailed and zipped, make sure that you keep everything current. If you’ve made changes to anything in the chain of things that are you on the Internet, update your storage every now and then to reflect the latest versions of what was deemed important when you began. If new websites or accounts have been opened, make sure you add these to the mix.

10. Zip it and Encrypt it.

The final step in this exercise is to encrypt all the data that you’ve organized. Depending on the size of the files, you can email them to yourself at the neutral email account you’ve created or you could make hard copies. Passwords can be printed out and filed in a secure location, such as a safety deposit box with your will, but it might be better to lock them up on an encrypted DVD. Using TrueCrypt, burn a DVD every now and then which will reflect the current status of everything that you’ve decided to pass on when you pass on. Make the password something that is easy to remember and make it known to your executor in your will.

11. Are There Other Options?

If all of this is too much for you, don’t despair. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel when it comes to planning for your afterlife life. Some very smart people have set up websites that will guide you through the process…for a fee. Please read the disclaimer at the end of the reviews before you sign on the dotted line…so to speak.

One of the nicer sites we came across was based in San Francisco. Legacy Locker takes you through the sign up process and all succeeding steps in a direct and helpful manner. Sure, you still need all of the information just as if you were doing all of this yourself but with Legacy Locker, you are prompted for each detail. Overall, we liked the feeling of Legacy Locker. Fees for a lifetime membership are $299.00. This premium level gives you unlimited assets, beneficiaries and ‘legacy letters’ as well as both document backup and video uploads. A word of warning here. Legacy Locker’s SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificate showed as being expired for about a week during our research.

Wouldn’t it make sense that a site which states a concern for its users safety could at least keep an SSL to date?
Deathswitch is much simpler in its approach. Through the use of regular emails sent to you, Deathswitch waits for you not to respond. After a predetermined length of time without an answer from you, Deathswitch sends out your drafted emails, with attachments if you want, to a maximum of thirty with up to ten recipients each in the $19.95 per year premium plan. This approach seems best for anyone who doesn’t have a large online presence. Deathswitch does not take into consideration things such as stroke or coma. What if you weren’t dead, only disabled? After a certain period of time, everything you have collected to be sent out on your death is emailed on your behalf. Should you come back to an appropriate level of mental fitness later on, you might have a lot of explaining to do. Deathswitch also has a free account which will send one email, but no attachments, after your death. Because this system is based on non-response, no death certificate is required.

The Last Email, based in Spain and Brazil, had the slowest website that we’ve encountered in a long time. If you have minutes to wait for a page to load, check it out. Prices are in Euros and the most expensive plan allows for unlimited emails but only five megs of online storage.

My Last Email is an online obituary and memorial site which is based in England. Prices are in British Pounds. The website provides space for an online memorial, accessed by password only, as well as an online obituary which is open to anyone who has been given the link. We found the space very limited here, although you are allowed to upload a video that could run ‘about ten minutes’.

My Web Will is only interested in your social networking life after death. For a fee, right now it’s $9.95 per year for the ‘beta’ version, My Web Will will make the changes to your account that you have requested. You decide if you want to deactivate the account, change some information in it or transfer it to someone else. The only security breach possible with My Web Will is that your social network passwords and/or email passwords, should you decide to include them with your account, could be compromised. My Web Will works with all major networking sites including Facebook, Hotmail, Yahoo, WordPress, etc. You will need to set up two verifiers. They will have to provide My Web Will with a copy of your death certificate before any changes are made to your various profiles.

12. But…

With everything from outdated security certificates to payments through Paypal, it seems that online merchants of everlasting virtual life want you to play a game of Who Do You Trust? Before you send a few megs of your data off to any of the companies mentioned here, take some time to think about the consequences. Remember that we’re not talking about a hotmail password here. We’re talking about substantial details of your personal life as well as financial data, in some cases. Are you ready to bundle all of this stuff up and send it off to a site loaded with Google ads and vague promises of 25 year guarantees? Hell, the Internet itself isn’t twenty-five years old yet!

In researching this article, we were appalled at the lack of professionalism displayed on the various company websites mentioned here. Poor navigation, limited information, incredibly slow servers…these sites had it all. If you’ve seen the Explorer 8 ‘Greater Offshore Bank & Trust’ ads on TV, you’ll get the gist of what we’re talking about.
Of the group, Deathswitch stood out because they don’t handle much personal information. Their service is simple, affordable and, except for the Google ads on every page, the website is about the best of the bunch. For now, however, it might be better to wait. Two things could happen. One of these companies will take the lead and become the go-to outfit for these arrangements or a major software company will create some cool app that will walk you through the steps just as Quicken and Quicktax take care of your personal financial needs.

The End.

This isn’t a one-size fits all guide to preparing for your own demise, but it should make you think about what’s important to you. Hopefully, you will take some steps to eliminate problems for your family and friends after you shuffle off your mortal coil. Death doesn’t have to be as final as it used to be.