Including instructions for handling your online identity in your “In case of …” file

One of my former students died a few years ago, yet her Facebook page remains. Her page has turned into a shrine, and her friends come and leave messages every once in awhile, whenever they miss her.

I’m not sure if her parents left the page up on purpose, or if they didn’t know it existed. For a teenager, though, the Facebook shrine seems appropriate, especially since all of her friends grew up using the service.

However, if something were to happen to me in an accident, I don’t want my Facebook page to stay active. Same applies to my personal Twitter account and Google+ account. Without someone regularly monitoring these pages, they could easily be hacked and the hacked content could be very upsetting to the people who are close to me.

As part of my August resolution to create an “In case of …” file, I’ve decided to include specific instructions on what to do with my social online presence. I really, really, really have not enjoyed thinking about all of this, but I’m putting on my big girl pants and bucking through it. And, my hope is that no one ever has to look at this file.

My friend Craig and I were talking about this subject recently, and he explained to me what he plans to do. Before I get too deep into his explanation, you should know Craig is in his 20s, single, no children, doesn’t own property, and doesn’t necessarily trust his family to carry out his “In case of …” plans exactly as he wishes (although he wholeheartedly trusts many of his friends to do so). He and I are in two very different stages of our lives, which speaks to why our solutions are so varied. Craig doesn’t have an “In case of …” file, but he has something that is close enough. He uses the service Dead Man’s Switch.

The way Dead Man’s Switch works is every few months they send you an email asking you to click on a link. If you click on the link, you’re verifying that you’re alive. If you don’t click on the link, they’ll send you a second email and then a third. If you don’t respond to any of the emails (you choose how much time lapses between the initial and follow-up emails), the service assumes you are dead. At that point, emails will be distributed to people of your choosing with specific instructions on how to carry out your post-death requests. In Craig’s case, he wrote all of the emails in one afternoon and then encrypted them before passing them along to Dead Man’s Switch. He said they are mostly related to shutting down his online presence.

As we were talking, Craig made some very good points about shutting down one’s online identity, which apply to “In case of …” files and services like Dead Man’s Switch:

  • The people reading your file or your email need to be receptive to what you’re saying. If you’re making any kind of requests about how you would like your things handled, it’s important that the recipients be people who are likely to honor your requests.
  • You then have to have a couple of awkward conversations telling folks you will want them to read your file or to wait for an email after you die. It’s a very bad idea to not tell someone, unless you want to scare them with unexpected email from beyond the grave. Thankfully, these conversations are only a quick unpleasantness.
  • Updating passwords and logins in your file or emails is crucial. This information can’t ever be out of date. Personally, I [Craig] have a number of websites up, and there’s at least one that I’d like to think should stay up if I were to die tomorrow. People need to have the ability to log into my hosting accounts and renew domains. People need access to my email. People need access to my Twitter and Facebook accounts, either to take them down entirely or at least update them to reflect my new status. Essentially, any login I have needs to be passed on to someone. If you use something like a password manager, giving the main password needed to access that might be a good way to deal with all of the passwords and logins at once.

Have you thought about your online identity and including instructions for dealing with it in your “In case of …” file? Would a service like Dead Man’s Switch work for you? Are you excited for August to come to an end so you can stop reading such morbid topics on this site?

20 Comments for “Including instructions for handling your online identity in your “In case of …” file”

  1. posted by Cindy on

    One month ago my dear brother-in-law and his wife and two children were killed in a car accident. My brother-in-law was exceptionally well-organized and because he lived near us we knew his attorney and insurance agent. They each had wills and the wills were fairly recent. But…
    My brother-in-law’s emergency contact with the Department of Motor Vehicles was very out-of-date. Thankfully our local police department is very dedicated and worked through the circuitous route it took to find my father-in-law.
    We had only email addresses, not telephone numbers or street addresses, for many of my sister-in-law’s family members. Obviously we could not send this information by email so their notification was delayed until we could track down at least a telephone number.
    We did not have contact information for several very close friends. That meant that some people heard through the news coverage when we would have liked to contact them personally.
    We do not know passwords for any of their accounts. Like me, my brother-in-law had written his passwords down using a code but we haven’t been able to crack the code, although we’re getting closer.

    I have hesitated to comment because this is beyond what most people have experienced. But please, do not wait to take care of this task. Do not wait until your life is better organized or you have more assets or you are older or whatever. Taking care of this file will let you know where you need to be more organized and can become a project plan. Take care of this task today and give yourself an annual reminder to update it.

  2. posted by pammyfay on

    Although I understand the usefulness of Dead Man’s Switch, it would really start giving me the creeps after a few of those “are you still alive” kind of e-mails.

  3. posted by Terri H. on

    Thank you for writing this, Erin. I HAVE wondered from time to time how to handle this. For instance, every now and then Ravelry will post an announcement that a Raveler has passed away, and I wonder how they found out–who told them. I don’t think my husband would even think of it if I passed suddenly! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course.

  4. posted by Rhia on

    Facebook actually has a function that lets any user report that a person is deceased without knowing their login information:

    The reporting individual needs to provide proof of death of the person, (i.e. an obituary.)

  5. posted by Rae on

    I don’t find anything morbid about this. I think it does a great service to your loved ones to be prepared.

    As someone who is very active online, I’m thrilled to learn about a service like Deadman’s Switch. I wrote an ebook with someone and manage all the marketing, so I can arrange for him to get instructions on how to get into the website and e-commerce account. A friend is familiar with WordPress, so I can get her to go in take down my blog. Another friend will be able to handle Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, plus she already has all the info for my webhost and email accounts.

    I know what I’m doing this weekend!

  6. posted by jodi on

    In the last year, I had four friends lose a child. Its true that death (your own) may NOT be what your “in Case Of” file gets used for.

    If your child is in an accident, you want to be able to hand a police officer/ambulance driver/hospital worker a list of medical history…no parent wants to spend their child’s last hours separated from comforting them because hospital registration didnt get their insurance information. In an emergency you are more likely to forget potentially critical information, so preparing ahead of time could save a life…

    The other suggestion I have is a “how to help” list…include things like food allergies and instructions so someone can organize meals. Suggest that people use disposable containers (nothing like planning your 4 month old daughters funeral while trying to keep track of which casserole dish belongs to Miss Sally next door).

    Also, many emergency employees are trained to check cell phones for a contact listed under the name “ICE” (in case of emergency). YOU may know which number belongs to your husband, wife, mother, but would an EMT?

    Great topic! I have really enjoyed the non-morbid ability to tell people “I have been reading a series on an organizing blog about” as a way to open the discussion with family and friends that need to know. Thanks Erin!

  7. posted by danielle on

    I don’t think it’s morbid to talk about this stuff, merely practical. OF COURSE I don’t want to think about something happening to me, but the thought of my family struggling to tie up loose ends is motivating enough to help me get these things done.

  8. posted by David on

    I would not recommend Dead Man’s Switch. I signed up for an account there after reading about their heavy-duty encryption and security practices — and then they sent me a wide-open unencrypted email with my password in it, in plain text.

    This tells you everything you need to know about their security expertise.

    Also, they don’t allow you to delete an account, only to disable it.

  9. posted by Janet on

    After a young-ish single neighbor dropped dead a few years ago and I heard about her family struggling, amid their emotional shock and grief, to find information they needed to handle her affairs, I created an “in case of” file. I printed it and, until I realized how completely it would arm a burglar, taped it on the inside of my front door. It’s now in a bookshelf where it would be found, in a sealed envelope clearly marked to open only in case of my death or incapacitation.

    In it is medical info, contact info for anyone I’d want to be notified, professional contacts & schedule so weekly appointments could be cancelled, IDs and passwords to all relevant accounts, and all banking/credit/online info so it’s all in one place. Any instructions are there as well (like where to find more current info I may not have printed yet).

    When my father was very ill, I’d consolidated all his personal, medical, and financial info so all siblings would have equal access/opportunity to help. It was VERY helpful and time-saving in many situations. It takes a lot of time to do this, but then it’s done – with occasional updates that only take a few minutes.

    This is something to do out of love for those who will be already overwhelmed dealing with whatever the situation is. Knowing how to deal with their loved one’s (you) life will ease things for them as well as have online identities and such dealt with as you wish. I think it’s more considerate than morbid. 🙂

  10. posted by Mletta on

    Erin, I do not find this topic morbid by any means. If anything, this is what more people need to address so that their loved ones are not left in an even more difficult situation should they die or become incapacitated.

    As Janet says: “…it’s more considerate than morbid.” Your comment at the end of this piece (“Are you excited for August to come to an end so you can stop reading such morbid topics on this site?”) shows perhaps your own discomfort or some need to apologize for addressing a serious topic. I hope it’s neither. You do a great service to your readership with your honesty in tackling this topic.

    As for “unpleasantness” in talking…well, that depends on a person’s own maturity and that of those they are asking for help. It may not be an easy topic for some folks, but the reality is, it is far more difficult and unpleasant (I have heard people curse their beloved family members when facing horrendous difficulties post -death in handling such matters. Do you really want that?) It’s not a casual or light topic, but just like going to the doctor requires us to get over whatever issues we have with our own bodies, so, too, does this situation require focus and maturity.

    Once again, I want to emphasize that death is NOT the worst-case scenario in life and why you need to prepare all sorts of information in advance. Strokes, accidents, post-surgical problems–all of these can leave you unable to speak (or even in a coma) or unable to communicate.

    Even if you are not very active in social media, you do need to include contact information for whatever accounts (facebook, twitter, etc.) you have. And never assume someone else will know how to cancel accounts. (All of the social media should make it easier and very upfront. They don’t.)

    Most important, you need to be very clear about your wishes, but also understand that someone may not honor them or know how to fulfill them. If that is a concern, then perhaps you should not have an account. I’m not certain I would ever rely on any third-party service for any of this either.

    Something that also needs to be addressed is the disposition of any web sites, blogs and/or domain names you are responsible for. (Take them down? Transfer the domain name, etc.?) Most of us have auto renewals for domain names and sometimes even for web hosting.

    Hopefully, this information is available within accounts, but your wishes re this also must be spelled out (and reasonable) and also HOW to fulfill them. (Unless you delegate to someone who has posted to a web site, they won’t even know what to do with your online access information to your web hosting service, let alone how to remove pages or add to them!) If you plan to maintain the site (shifting that responsibility to someone else, for example)or blog, how will folks post? Did you leave templates, documents, etc. with THAT data, etc.?

    Our lives are far more complicated today and you really need to take the time to think through what you want done. And then, hopefully, find the right person to help. I’ve got great friends and I’ve asked them to do various things based on their skills. The woman with my power of attorneys for health and finances is terrific, but she knows nothing about computers let alone social media or online stuff of any kind. That is delegated to someone else.

    All of this information needs to be updated as things change during the year. (Credit card numbers, exp dates, etc.) So make a point of creating a format that is easily updated and then update as changes occur.

    If the image of your loved ones struggling with all of this is not enough to spur you on, well, think of it as a civic duty, and one that protects you as well as others. Whatever it takes to motivate you, just Do. It.

    Finally, if you travel frequently for business or pleasure, you really, really, really need to have your house in order.

    And don’t forget about issues related to your business (if owned) or your work. You would be amazed at how many people overlook this aspect. We had a friend whose father was in hospice near the end of his life. Because he was worried about his wife (who never worked and who really didn’t want to pay attention to work-related issues of his business, which he owned), he was spending his last days in meetings with people to ensure that she did not. This is NOT what you want to be doing on the last days of your life.

    If you truly care about your family and friends, this is an incredible gift to give them. Consider this when hesitating or procrastinating.

  11. posted by jodi on

    I am diligently working on my own file, and thought I would mention to include court docket numbers if you have anything with that number. Examples would include:

    Child support
    Divorce (if not finalized)
    Criminal cases (we were hit by a drunk driver and are getting restitution)
    Administrative appeals (i.e. medical assistance)
    Educational hearings (i.e. special education appeals)

    Even if you just make a list of docket numbers and contact phone numbers it would be a huge first step for anyone trying to resolve those issues, since the court would have things like attorney contact info.

  12. posted by Another Deb on

    Most everything you mentioned in the blog and the comments rings true and is extremely helpful. Thank you. My BIL has been gone a year now and his friends do come to his page and leave little notes to him. It is a great comfort to the family and keeps us all in touch with people we would never have known except for BIL’s circle of friends. I would, however, not see the point in worrying about Facebook hackers. If we took the page down it would be like losing him all over again. The people left behind will know when they are ready to let go.

  13. posted by Cari on

    This is not morbid at all, Erin. Thank you for the reminder, and thank you to the commenters for adding things that should not be forgotten. Every day, it seems like, there is something in the news about ‘an innocent bystander’ being seriously injured or killed in a random accident. So we never know when our last day will be (plus it’s in the Bible that we won’t know). My grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease about 30 years ago, and when she died it took her 3 children months to go through and find all her accounts and contacts.

  14. posted by Bryan on

    This s a very good topic, not only should it be talked about with regards to social networks but also email, online bank accounts, blogs, etc.

  15. posted by Fiona on

    Not morbid at all, Erin – you’re ahead of the curve! I’m sure as time goes by and the first ‘digital’ generation ages, there will be more and more apps and storage systems to compile all this info. It’s a “living” file as much as an emergency file, as well – whenever someone changes an email address (or physical one) you need to update details on all the web services. I’m going to sit down and do this over the weekend!

  16. posted by jb on


    Thank you for a great post. When my grandmother passed away (way, way, before the digital age) we discovered that she had all of the funeral instructions (pallbearers, clothing, etc.) ready to go. It was a tremendous help, and I have since always known you should make such plans, but it had never occurred to me to think about passwords. Thank you for a great reminder. A quick uncomfortable conversation is better than an ongoing, painful cat-and-mouse game with a password after a loved one’s death, such as those alluded to by other posters.

  17. posted by Jennifer on

    Setting up an ‘in case of file’ is a great idea and one that I know I really should work on too. In my local area, a well-known blogger was diagnosed with cancer at a fairly young age. When it became clear that he was losing the fight, he went about setting things up and getting everything organized for his family. He even pre-wrote the final words for his own blog with instructions to publish it after he passed. The link in case anyone is interested:

  18. posted by KN on

    Thank you, Erin, for addressing this topic, and thanks also to Jennifer for sharing the link to Penmachine. I wept at the beauty and wisdom in his writing, which helped me lay one more stone on my path to recovery. I want to live a life so full–yet uncluttered–that I may face death with such grace.

  19. posted by Em on

    This isn’t really a tip about the “in case of” file, but it’s something in the same vein that I learned from the attorney who drew up the durable power of attorney for my aging mother, who is now completely unable to handle her affairs.
    He asked if my husband and I had these for each other, and when I said no, told me that we should. He said even young couples should have DPOAs for each other “in case of” accidents, injuries, and incapacitation. Never would even have crossed my mind before he brought this up.

  20. posted by April on

    Actually, I find this subject very intriguing and wish there were more specific details/how-tos. I’m not looking forward to August coming to an end so I “can stop reading such morbid topics on this site.”

    I don’t find it morbid at all. I find it responsible.

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