Getting Your Digital Ducks in a Row

Nov 15, 2019

A year or so ago, I heard a disturbing story. A friend’s aunt had passed away suddenly, with no warning. While her children were stunned at the sudden loss, she had prepared her estate and everything seemed to be in order. A few weeks after the funeral, the family was cleaning her house and came across her computer. They tried to log in to the computer, but no one knew her username or password. It suddenly occurred to them that she probably had digital accounts that need to be closed or otherwise handled. They knew her email address, but didn’t know where it was hosted or any of her login credentials.

Ultimately, it took several months before the family felt like they had found all of the various digital accounts in her name. Some of the accounts automatically were charging her credit cards a monthly fee. It took quite a bit of effort to find everything and shut it down.

Anyone who uses digital technology needs to consider how their accounts will be handled after their death or if they become unable to manage the accounts. One of the first steps is to make a list of every digital device you use. This could include a computer, cellphone, tablet, e-readers, external hard drives, flash drives, cameras, music players, auto satellite services, or “smart” devices (televisions, thermostats, door bells and locks, etc.). This list goes on and on.

Once you have listed your digital devices, you should make a list of every account you access electronically. This could include: email, social media, banks, credit cards, utility companies, insurance, airlines, charitable organizations, mortgage companies, shopping services, websites, computer backup services, etc. If an account generates an automatic charge to a credit card or bank account, it would be helpful to note this. Again, the list could be very long.

These two lists should be put with your estate paperwork and reviewed periodically. This will assist your family immensely if the need arises.

We have to be careful about our many usernames and passwords. They should be complicated and lengthy so that thieves cannot easily determine them and cause havoc and loss in our lives. A quick search on the internet shows that many people believe that you should not share your login credentials with anyone—not even a trusted spouse. Whether or not to share login credentials with anyone in your life is a very personal decision. It is a leap of faith and trust. You are basically allowing that person full access to your financial and private life. Only you can make that decision.

If you choose not to share your login credentials, most online services have policies in place to assist families in accessing accounts of a deceased love one. Most require paperwork, such as birth and death certificates and proof of authority under local law that you are the lawful representative of the deceased person, or his/her estate. The process can be cumbersome and stressful. But, it can be done.

If any of your digital accounts represent personal assets, they need to be handled in your estate plan.

Complete estate planning is very important. Working with a reputable estate planning attorney is critical to secure your rights, prevent disputes and ensure that your loved ones are cared for. Laws surrounding estate management change regularly and it’s a good idea to use an attorney who specializes in estate planning.

If you need assistance finding a reputable estate planning attorney, you can contact your local Council on Aging.  When you meet with your estate planner for an initial meeting, make sure you are comfortable with them and that they take the time to answer all of your questions fully.  If you are not comfortable, you might need to find a different firm.