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Your Social Media Legacy: Pre-Planning Features On Google

June 3, 2021
What happens to your Google account when you die? Discover the pre-planning tools available to help you protect your digital legacy.
Written By Sharon HartungJune 3, 2021

To play off a quote from the movie, Anchorman: “I don’t know how to put this but… Google is kind of a big deal. People know Google. Google is very important.”

Google has been around since 1998 and grown to become the most popular search engine, with a market share of over 90%—mail being the most popular email provider in the world with an estimated 1.8 billion users.

So, how well does Google stack up when it comes to pre-planning and legacy features?

Google Legacy Features

The answer is: good!

Aside from Facebook, Google is one of the only other social media platforms that currently offers any legacy and pre-planning tools and features. Google’s feature is called Inactive Account Manager and offers a handful of options like:

  • Decide when Google should consider your account inactive
  • Choose up to 10 people to notify if your Google account becomes inactive
  • Choose which data your trusted contacts get access to
  • Decide if your inactive account should be deleted

google legacy features

You get an exhaustive list of choices when setting up Inactive Account Manager, so you can decide exactly what your trusted contacts can (and can’t) get access to should your account become inactive.

google legacy features

How Google handles an account when someone dies

So, with the Inactive Account Manager, living account holders can pre-determine what happens to their account and who is authorized to receive the data. So, let’s look at what happens after a person dies who used this pre-planning feature and what happens when a person dies who didn’t.

With Inactive Account Manager

If the account holder used Inactive Account Manager and pre-selected “deletion”, then the account is deleted after a predetermined amount of time has passed with no activity.

If the account holder has pre-selected a “trust contact”, then the “trust contact” is contacted and provided access to the preselected data.

Without Inactive Account Manager

If the account holder has not set up Google Inactive Account Manager, depending on the circumstances, their executor may need a U.S. Court order according to the terms of service, in order to obtain the account holder’s data, even if they are Canadian.

I reached out to Betsy Ehrenberg, CEO of Legacy Concierge, a digital asset vault and services company, to confirm this is could be the case:

Yes, the executor of an estate may need a U.S. court order. When fiduciaries approach Google, they often make a mistake in asking for the password of a deceased user, which Google won’t provide. A better approach would be to ask for the data and documents of the deceased.
Betsy Ehrenberg

Google’s Social Legacy Score

Google has a pre-planning tool called Inactive Account Manager. In some respects it is similar to Facebook’s Legacy Contact pre-planning tool, in that in order for it to work, it must be set up in advance by the Google account holder.

Further to that, since you don’t have to specify whether or not inactivity is due to death or incapacity, the pre-planning tool can address both situations in the same way; however, not distinguishing between the two isn’t really ideal.

Google ALMOST gets a 4 for its Social Legacy Score; but we knocked off a point for the following reasons:

  • There is no publicly available information that they consulted with estate industry experts or tech sector specialists to develop their pre-planning feature (like Facebook who engaged Dr. Jed Brubaker of the Identity Lab University of Colorado.)
  • Documentation doesn’t highlight under what circumstances Inactive Account Manager works (or doesn’t work.)
  • Limited help documentation, providing only one page of information.

Google gets a Social Legacy Score of 3 out of 5

Google scores higher than Twitter and LinkedIn, but lower than Facebook, with a Social Media Legacy Score of 3.

Google’s Inactive Account Manager allows its account holders to pre-plan how they want their account handled in the event of inactivity—and it encompasses inactivity due to anything including incapacity or death. Once set up, it monitors your usage and if it detects a predetermined amount of inactivity it will either delete your account or contact your “Trusted Contact”, depending on your selection.

Google offers one section in their Help resource that addresses commonly asked questions about Inactive Account Manager and instructs users how to set it up.

How Google handles accounts if someone becomes incapacitated

Google does not have any help or option to deal specifically with an incapacitated account holder. Google will treat inactivity due to incapacitation in the same way it would if the account holder were to pass away — it doesn’t distinguish between the two.

Other legacy planning considerations for Google

Google for many of us is our digital home office. Consider how tied we are to Google through our personal digital devices–Chromebooks, Google Home, Nest products, Fitbit, and mobile devices. Now, imagine how much more complicated that will make estate administration if people don’t plan ahead.

How stranded will your family be if you didn’t set them up in advance with compliant access to the Google ecosystem?

Another consideration is how Google’s Terms of Service plays into Inactive Account Management. Google introduced a policy update in 2021 in that it would delete accounts that are inactive for 24 months.

One thing worth noting is that Inactive Account Manager is not currently available for Business Accounts or Enterprise Gmail accounts hosted or administered through Google Business Service.

What to do if a loved one passes away

If you are the friend or family member of someone who passed away, Google gives you the ability to submit a request, According to Google:

“We can work with immediate family members and representatives to close the account of a deceased person where appropriate. In certain circumstances we may provide content from a deceased user’s account.”

You will be asked to provide your government-issued ID, a digital copy of the death certificate, and any other supporting documents.

You can request content from or the deactivation of a variety of Google accounts including a blog, Drive, Google+, Gmail, Google Photos, and Youtube.

How Google could improve its Social Legacy Score

Using inactivity is a creative basis for dealing with account usage and pre-planning options.

It would be great to see Google publish statistics about the use of their pre-planning options to see if it’s in line with the findings of a recent survey. Epilogue and Your Digital Undertaker® surveyed over 1200 Canadians and found almost 70% of respondents who use social media have no idea pre-planning tools and features even exist. And of those that are aware of pre-planning options, only ¼ have actually used them.

To boost its Social Legacy Score, it would be helpful for Google to specifically address incapacity, either as part of the Inactive Account Manager feature or as a separate one.

In addition, the shortest period of inactivity that one can pre-select is 3 months at the time of writing this. But what happens when an executor or fiduciary needs to gain immediate access to the email of a deceased person. As mentioned, Gmail is often tied to so many other accounts and devices, having to wait 3-months can definitely make an executor’s job more difficult.

google legacy features

Lastly, given how common family engagement has become, further help documentation on how to securely manage multi-family access to devices and services would be helpful. For example, if the family member that set up the Nest home thermostat dies without having given the sign-in instructions to a surviving member, what should the surviving family members do?

Nest steps

If there is one thing you do after reading this post, it’s to go set up your Inactive Account Manager for Google to avoid leaving your family in the lurch.

If there’s one other thing you do, it’s to address your other social media accounts as well. I recommend taking advantage of Epilogue’s free Social Media Will to document your wishes for your Google, Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, and Twitter accounts.

I worked alongside Epilogue to develop the Social Media Will and feel it’s an important tool to document how you want your profiles handled if you can no longer manage them yourself. Trust me, it will make your loved ones’ lives so much easier when having to wrap up your affairs without guidance.

It’s super easy and only takes about 10 minutes. Just answer some simple questions and you’ll have a document that can be stored with your Will and easily shared with your executor or fiduciary.

And don’t forget to have conversations

Lastly, talk to your loved ones. Often lost in the Will and estate planning process is the important conversations with your family and executor about your wishes. Perhaps use social media and your social media will to get the conversation started!

Written By Sharon Hartung
Sharon Hartung, Captain (Ret’d), PEng, TEP, is the founder of Your Digital Undertaker®, which provides Digital Executor® webinars and consulting for advisors and clients on the tech management aspects of digital assets in estate planning. Sharon is the author of “Your Digital Undertaker” and soon to be published “Digital Executor®: Unraveling the New Path for Estate Planning”. Sharon is a committee member on the STEP Digital Assets SIG. Twitter @Undertakertech and website: Your Digital Undertaker