Your mother has just entered hospice care, and she is declining quickly. Suddenly there are a million questions you are supposed to have answered in advance: Is there a will? What should we do with the house, the old china, the dog? Most of them involve money, beloved objects or family history, but in the digital age, there are less tangible assets we almost never stop to think about.
Once we might have treasured a loved one’s voice on a recording or their image on an old video, but now their digital footprint is scattered. Like most Americans, our loved ones will most likely access more than two dozen password-protected sites on different computers and smartphones, storing and sharing the vulnerable, mundane and whimsical details of life. The average American values his or her digital assets, such as photo libraries, personal communication and entertainment files, at about $55,000, a value based on sentimental attachments as well as financial investments in music, application and software purchases. As we plan for inheriting the house and family keepsakes, we must include our digital lives as well.
Risk No. 1: Online bills
When Cara, 22, graduated from college, she returned home to spend the summer with her mother. After her mother was hospitalized for a heart attack, Cara spent every moment she could at her mother’s bedside. When Cara returned home the night her mother died, she found that the electricity was shut off. Apparently, she had been defaulting on online bills without realizing that there was no automatic payment system set up – or hard copies of the bill that would arrive each month. Cara was able to find all of her mother’s log-ins for bill payment on her computer, but she didn’t have all the passwords to access the accounts. She tried to convert the online bills back to paper statements, a process that wasn’t easy or quick.
Having all log-ins and passwords for bill payment and other financial accounts in one secure place would have helped Cara, especially in a time when she was already emotionally and physically exhausted – and too late to ask her mother about anything. So how do you do that?
If you ask five Internet security experts to list their favorite way to store passwords, you’re likely to come up with more than five answers. First is simply to keep a handwritten list, stored somewhere safe or with someone you trust, and inform your next of kin where it is. For more security, you could keep the list on your computer and even password-protect it – so long as you can remember the password. Next, you can use one of the online password protection companies. C-Net provides comprehensive reviews of technology and lists more than 700 password managers. Among the most widely used are 1Password, which, for a fee, can help you not only create strong passwords but also help you remember and, if necessary, restore them. Also popular are several free services, including PasswordSafe and LastPass, which similarly offer the ability to help you create and retrieve passwords.
Risk No. 2: Loss of data
Judy and her father were always close personally and professionally. For years, Judy was business manager for her father’s art gallery and felt confident that the electronic versions of her father’s drawings and his client contacts were accessible. A year after her father’s sudden death, Judy realized that simple software updates can make previous versions of electronic treasures obsolete. Immediately, she set out to create hard copies of files she wanted to save and share.
Going beyond password protection, you should think about how you’ll want your accounts managed once you’re no longer able to do so. In recent months, many new digital legacy planning tools have hit the market, designed to help manage the ending of our online lives.
Google offers its Google Inactive Account Manager, which allows you to choose a trusted contact who will be notified by e-mail and phone when your account has been inactive after a specified length of time and who can also be given access to the Google accounts you choose.
For all other accounts, you might want to look into a digital “vault,” a service that allows you to assign beneficiaries for each of your online accounts and safely store other aspects of your online presence there. For example, Legacy Locker explains that it allows account holders to save their online account information in a digital “safety deposit box” and then specify “beneficiaries” to receive information about these accounts once Legacy Locker has verified the account holder’s death. They also offer the ability to deliver “Legacy Letters” to friends or family members. Similar services are provided by companies such as AssetLock, Cirrus Legacy and SecureSafe.
Note that while all of these sites can help you focus on digital asset preservation, their services may conflict with terms of service, click-through agreements or relevant state and federal laws.
A foundational text is Evan Carroll and John Romano’s “Your Digital Afterlife,” and their website includes different strategies you can explore. Make sure that whatever tool you choose for digital estate planning is logical, easy to use and, most important, something you share with others.
Risk No. 3: Your personal legacy
Steve found out about his mother’s Facebook account several weeks after her death.
Facebook enabled Steve to learn more about his mother’s private experiences, which will, in turn, shape the story he tells of her life to his children. But what if he had discovered hurtful or confusing information? She would not have been there to confront, explain or repair the relationship. A painful gap would be left in her story – and in his life. Inspired by this experience, Steve and his wife have committed to inventorying their digital assets to spare their own children anxiety. They are also painfully conscious of how others might react to what they post about their own lives. .