Part of growing up is making sure that your affairs stay in order, no matter what might happen. In the last few decades, the scope of that has expanded to include the digital realm: what happens to all of your online accounts after you're gone? Google has a built-in mechanism for dealing with this called Inactive Account Settings. Unfortunately it's neither as easy nor as straightforward as it could be.

What is Inactive Account Settings?

Inactive Account Settings is a means by which Google will automatically lock down your account if you don't do anything with it for a set period of time. By default this is three months, but it can be extended to as much as eighteen (1.5 years). Google will send you alerts before the process is started.

Once the threshhold has been reached, you can tell Google to alert up to ten people that your account is going into inactive mode. You can also choose to share some of your data with those people — access to your Gmail account, for example, to give them 2FA access to other information. This is a good idea if you're in the process of, say, setting up a will or a power of attorney. Three months later, Google can completely delete your account, if you have that setting enabled.

But here's the important bit: Inactive Account Settings is not turned on for every Google account. You have to set it up manually, otherwise Google will keep your account open and accessible indefinitely, or close it at its discretion.

How to turn on and share Inactive Account Settings

If the conditional passing of this data to a trusted friend or family member sounds like a good idea, go to this address. Setting it up is pretty straightforward, though you might want to double-check things once you're finished, and check it out for any changes once in a while.

Before you start, you'll want:

  1. Your primary Google email address
  2. A secondary email address, for backup
  3. Your phone number for SMS warnings that the IAS system is about to go into effect
  4. The email address of anyone you intend to share data with after the IAS system activates

Follow the steps on screen as necessary. You can add up to ten people to be notified when your account goes inactive.

When you add a new person, you'll see this pop-up. This allows you to share as few or as many Google services as you care to with your contact. Just sharing "Google Account" (which includes Gmail) will give them access to tons of information, Chrome will show your web browsing history, Maps will give them your trip and location data, YouTube will show them your video watch history, et cetera. All and none options are available if you're in a hurry, but this is something that's worth careful thought.

Note that you'll need to set up this granular account access for every person you add to this list. Also, be aware that if you add any new Google services after you sign up for Inactive Account Settings, they won't be automatically shared here. So if you want Google Stadia or Google Chat shared, but you only start using them after you've gone through this process, you'll need to do it again and manually share those services.

The person you're sharing this data will have to confirm that they're part of the system, via either email or text message. The data will be shared as a downloadable file.

Auto-Reply in Gmail

You can set up an auto-reply function in Gmail that will tell anyone trying to contact you that your account isn't currently available to you. How specific or general you want to be in this message is up to you; if you're currently suffering from a terminal illness, you can probably be more concrete than someone who's just covering all contingencies.

Auto-Delete Account Option

This is the big one. If you're fairly certain that you'll never return to your Google account after you haven't touched it for three months, six months, a year, et cetera, then you can instruct Google to completely delete your account by enabling the toggle in the last step. It is not necessary to give account access to anyone else, or to set up an email auto-reply, in order to use this tool.

While the user can set the inactive status to activate from three to eighteen months, the auto-delete will occur three months after that date, with no variation. So only set this up if you're absolutely sure you won't ever be returning to your Google account. Death, witness protection, space colonization, etc., are all good reasons to use this; a year-long vacation somewhere without internet access is not.

Note that, while this plan is unchangeable three months after the inactive account setting is enabled, you can return to this screen and change any of the above settings at any time.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash