The term “estate planning” generally includes documents such as a Last Will & Testament, financial power of attorney, health care power of attorney and maybe a trust. However, to address the growing online presence of individuals from young to old, estate planning has grown to include planning of an individual’s digital assets on their death or disability as well. In fact, recent articles suggest that the average user possesses upwards of 90 online accounts. What exactly happens to those accounts when your clients die?
Many people assume that an executor or a family member will gain access to the accounts, but for many states, that is not currently the case. The laws in most states do not grant an executor or family member access to online accounts at the time the owner passes away. The Model Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) was drafted to provide states with consistent rules and procedures for accessing digital information, however, many digital access providers have vigorously fought to stop states from passing legislation similar to the UFADAA. In an effort to take a step forward, some states have passed slimmed down legislation to allow limited access to certain accounts, such as email. In addition to state laws, each individual digital access provider has their own rules and requirements for gaining access to personal information.
Because access to digital accounts following the death of a family member can be daunting, it is important that clients implement an effective digital estate plan. The principles which guide traditional estate planning are also applicable to digital estate planning. Keeping important documents updated and in a place where family members and/or an executor can access the information is especially important with digital accounts. Most people have a myriad of email addresses, passwords, pin numbers, reset questions, thumbprints, secret knocks and code phrases that grant us access to our accounts. However, how many of those access keys are accessible by a family member and/or executor?
There are currently four methods to transfer access upon death: written instructions, access through specific digital providers, password managers and digital legacy services.
Many digital users record their passwords and access information and store the instructions in a secure place, such as a personal safe or safe deposit box. If the information is updated regularly and stored in a safe location, this can be the cheapest and simplest method to transfer access to a surviving family member or executor. However, because passwords and other login information change regularly, it is important that the written instructions be updated regularly as well. The necessary upkeep of recording and storing this information can require a significant time investment.
Many digital account providers are beginning to provide solutions to this issue. For example, Facebook now allows users to designate a profile executor who can access the account upon the death of the account creator. Twitter allows the person authorized to act on behalf of the deceased person to request an account to be deactivated. Email providers, like Google and Yahoo, will consider granting access to an account (or certain limited information) by the authorized person following a review of a written request, and a Gmail user can designate an Inactive Account Manager who may access certain information if the account is inactive for a designated period. While these individual solutions are helpful, it is difficult to prepare each account to be accessed by a surviving family member or executor, since each provider has different rules.
Third party password managers, like LastPass, KeePass and Dashlane, all provide methods to send access information to certain designated individuals on the death of the user. Generally, all password managers have the ability to share stored information with others; however, some password managers provide springing access. For example, LastPass allows users to choose one or more accounts to which they want to grant access and send an advance email to any individual. The email contains a link, which once activated, begins a countdown clock. During the designated timeframe, the original sender has the ability to reject access. In the event that the original sender does…
Estate planning documents are designed to protect clients’ wishes both during life and after death. In a durable power of attorney document, a client may pick an agent to help him manage his finances and legal affairs should he become mentally incapacitated during life. And in both will and trust documents, the client may determine how he wants his assets used or distributed after death.
But in the Internet age, it can be difficult to separate certain assets such as financial accounts from the computers, websites, and software used to operate, manage, manipulate, and convey information about those accounts. Thus without proper estate planning incorporating the client’s digital assets, it is a mistake to assume that client fiduciaries such as agents, guardians, executors, and trustees will have the tools they need to perform their obligations.
Existing Laws Do Not Provide Automatic Fiduciary Access To Digital Accounts And Digital Information
In North Carolina, statutory law does not support automatic fiduciary access to digital accounts and digital assets. An NC proposal addressing estate planning and digital accounts was removed from the statute S.L. 2013-91 (N.C. Gen. Stat. 30-3.1) before the Governor signed on March 12, 2013. A few other states have passed digital assets legislation.
Without clear direction from NC state law, controlling law is still mostly dictated by two 1986 Federal statutes which predate the commercial Internet. Although these Federal statutes are outdated, they still guide court decisions.
The overriding purpose of both the 1986 Stored Communications Act (SCA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is to protect the computer user’s privacy and to prevent unauthorized access to the user’s digital assets. As a result, the computer service providers subject to the SCA and CFAA maintain service agreements that include only one user, and strictly prohibit “unauthorized access.” Some service agreements also state that the individual user’s rights are “nontransferable.” Thus, when a user becomes mentally incompetent or dies, fiduciaries may have difficulty getting access to his online accounts.
In addition, many online services will refuse to release the password information from a deceased user, even in the face of a judicial order or civil lawsuit.
Best Practices Require Both Authorization And Transfer Of Log-on Data Including Passwords
In the absence of a modern statute controlling fiduciary access to digital assets, best estate planning practices require both 1) clear authorization from the principal, grantor, or testator in the estate documents authorizing the fiduciary to access the digital accounts; 2) the actual transfer of account information including log-on information and passwords.
Although these preparations may not work forever and may not work with every digital account, these steps may be the best that NC estate planners can do until controlling laws are modernized. Some digital providers have revised their rules to permit fiduciaries to access online accounts when the proper authorization is included in the primary user’s estate planning documents.
Authorization Language and Definition
Estate planner Jean Gordon Carter and colleagues provide sample authorization language, which may be included in a will:
“Digital Assets. My executor shall have the power to access, handle, distribute and dispose of my digital assets.”
They also advocate including a broad definition of “Digital Assets” in the will.
Proper authorization to use digital assets language should additionally be included in the durable power of attorney document, in order for the agent to be fully able to conduct an incapacitated grantor’s business and legal affairs.
Transfer of Account Administrative Information
In addition to the digital assets authorization language needed in the estate documents, the grantor must also physically transfer to the proper fiduciaries the administrative information required for using the digital assets. This includes account information, log-on information, and passwords.
Randy Siller, a registered representative of Lincoln Financial Advisors Corporation, shares the following seven best practices for clients transferring digital access information to fiduciaries as part of an estate plan:
Digital Hardware. List all digital hardware, including desktops, laptops, smartphones, iPads, USB flash drives, and external hard drives.
Financial Software. List all financial-related software programs used, such as Quicken, QuickBooks, and Turbo Tax, which may include important tax and business information, as well as passwords.
File Organization/Passwords. Provide an outline of the file organization on digital devices so fiduciaries will know where to find important files, as well as any passwords they may need to gain file access.
Social Media. List all social media accounts, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Cloud websites, as well as the information needed to access each one.
Online Accounts. Prepare a list of all online accounts including bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, e-commerce accounts (Amazon, PayPal), credit card accounts, and insurance accounts. It is critical for fiduciaries to have access to these providers.
Subscriptions. Ensure that a list of online subscriptions such as Netflix, Norton Anti-Virus, credit reporting/protection subscriptions, and streaming music subscription services are documented so fiduciaries can access or cancel those services.
Email. List all personal and business-related email accounts, and how to access them.
It is easy for estate planners to focus on protecting monetary assets. But the control of a client’s “digital legacy” on social media may also be important.
Geoffrey Fowler, writing for the Wall Street Journal, has noted: “The digital era adds a new complexity to the human test of dealing with death. Loved ones once may have memorialized the departed with private rituals and a notice in the newspaper. Today, as family and friends gather publicly to write and share photos online, the obituary may never be complete.”
To deal with the desire for users to allow their loved ones to memorialize them through their Facebook accounts at death, Facebook recently decided to allow members to designate a “legacy contact” to manage parts of their accounts posthumously. Members may now also choose to have their presence deleted entirely at death.
On The Horizon
Likely the most complete proposal addressing the need of clients to effectively give fiduciaries access to their digital estate has been written under the auspices of the Uniform Law Commission. The Uniform Law Commission approved the recent Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) on July 16, 2014 in Seattle, WA.
The Commission states:
The UFADAA gives people the power to plan for the management and disposition of their digital assets in the same way they can make plans for their tangible property: by providing instructions in a will, trust, or power of attorney. If a person fails to plan, the same court-appointed fiduciary that manages the person’s tangible assets can manage the person’s digital assets, distributing those assets to heirs or disposing of them as appropriate.
Until such reforms become law, the best strategy for passing down digital assets to fiduciaries requires both including proper fiduciary authorization language in the estate documents, and the physical transfer of digital asset user information to fiduciaries.
People plan, or should plan, for all types of contingencies after their demise; a living will, family trust, a last will and testament, even a durable power of attorney to express your wishes about your demise if you’re alive but not able to do so yourself. But what about your digital life? Who has the authority to deal with these properties (intellectual or otherwise) after you’re gone?
Most responsible people have left professionally drafted and approved instructions about what they want done with their money, worldly possessions, other valued assets, and even their remains. But it’s unlikely that the average person has left instructions about how they want their on-line identities and their contents handled.
Hence, your digital legacy, a.k.a. “what becomes of your on-line sites and materials?”, is becoming a major topic of discussion among estate planners and lawyers who have been charged with handling these affairs in your absence.
Since all social media sites require passwords to access them, and we’ve been admonished to death (forgive the pun) about how to protect them, no one can access your accounts to shut them down or even to advise your friends and followers that you will no longer be posting, at least not from this plane. And, because we’re taught to change our on-line passwords frequently, giving your estate’s executor a list of passwords is a cumbersome task; it would seldom be up-to-date.
As a result, it often requires a court order to access the information that you’ve created on your Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Yahoo, eBay, PayPal, Skype, etc. accounts to close them down. (Do you even know how many of these accounts you have, active or otherwise?)
But fret not; this need has created a business opportunity, a hole that’s been filled by companies that specialize in handling your digital legacy after you no longer have a need to post to your Facebook page, or any other site.
Many of these sites offer services that include granting access to your representative, posthumous email services, and on-line memorials where friends and family can share loving thoughts and photographs about you.
According to their web site: Legacy Locker is a “secure repository for your vital digital property that lets you grant access to online assets for friends and loved ones in the event of loss, death, or disability.” That’s the gist of what these web services are about.
The Digital Beyond is an on-line service where you can find a complete list of companies that offer a variety services; digital estate planning, posthumous emails, and on-line memorial. Helpfully, this site includes a chart that compares these companies to each other in terms of the services that they offer. For example, you might not want an email service posting in your absence, so why pay for it? Some sites listed here are only on-line memorial sites and wouldn’t function as an effective digital legacy service. Companies named “After Steps,” “Asset Lock,” “Chronicle of Life,” “Eternity Message,” “Great Goodbye,” “My Wonderful Life,” “Parting Wishes,” even “Dead Man’s Switch,” give you a sampling of what these sites are about.
It would behoove you to browse around and compare the services, just as you would when looking for an estate attorney to handle your other affairs, then sign on with the one that suits your needs best. Doing so before your family or attorney has to do it will take the pressure off your loved ones to figure it out while they’re adjusting to their loss.
Once you’ve hired a service, here’s hoping you won’t need to use it for a long, long time.
UPDATE: April 12, 2013
Obviously, Google is listening to the media, and perhaps my own tech blog, as they just addressed the issue of what to do with the information you’ve posted on-line through Google’s own services. It’s called “Inactive Account Manager,” which they acknowledge in their statement is an inelegant name, but it’s intent is what’s important, and it seems that they got that mostly right.
With this service turned on, you’re able to predetermine what to do with the information that Google has in your account should something untoward happen to you in an untimely manner. In other words, if you don’t use your Google account within a set number of months (you decided how many), it will automatically delete your account and its content.
It also gives you the ability to notify people that you’ve specified to know that this is happening to your Google information.
The immediate flaw that I can see is that it asks for a way to contact you if your account has been inactive for a month. If I’m in some heavenly (hopefully) afterlife, trust me, my email alerts will be turned off.
Information contained herein is for guideline purposes only, is not intended as an endorsement of any product, and is no guarantee of the results.
A little over four years ago, my friend Tommy was in a car with a drunk driver and two other kids when it skidded out of a curvy road and rammed a pole about a mile away from my house. The other guys suffered only minor injuries, but the impact occurred on the back right door of the ’99 Nissan Sentra, where Tommy was sitting. He experienced irreparable head trauma and died in the hospital a few hours later. He was 17.
The way my hometown of Simsbury reacted was pretty interesting. Usually, we get the rap of being the basis for Eagleton in “Parks and Recreation” (i.e., rich and self-interested and anti-Amy Poehler), but everybody rallied around Tommy’s family to let them know they were loved and considered. It’s sad that tragedy is the catalyst for community outreach, but the results of sympathy, empathy and friendship were kind of beautiful.
How we express condolences and remember our loved ones is a little different now. Like everything else, it’s on the Internet, de-privatized for the world to see. People don’t necessarily have to go to the tombstone anymore. They can leave messages on the deceased’s social media profiles instead or in addition to. There are, to this day, Facebook statuses recalling memories with Tommy, with Tommy’s profile “tagged,” but Tommy is not there to receive the notification.
Something tells me Mark Zuckerburg never considered a social media afterlife, his own online cemetery. Quite frankly, it makes me a little squeamish. I always envisioned death as something more privately mourned.
Nevertheless, Facebook has its own “Memorial Mode” that allows relatives to take control of the deceased’s profile. Upon proof of death by someone who is in a clear position to act as an agent, Facebook will take down sensitive contact information like phone numbers and past statuses, and solely allow Facebook friends to post to their wall. Additionally, the site will add the word “Remembering” next to the name at the head of the profile.
However, nothing the deceased didn’t want shared while living is available to whoever gains access to their Facebook. There have been a handful of court cases with Facebook regarding teens who committed suicide and parents that sought more information, but were not allowed to obtain it under Facebook’s staunch privacy laws.
Facebook isn’t the only site seeking to help relatives (somewhat) connect with their loved ones posthumously. Gmail and Hotmail will allow families to order a disk of the deceased’s messages upon showing a death certificate and proof of power of attorney. Photography website Flickr is similar to Facebook in that an account will be forfeited to the family of the dead person, but anything considered private while the person was alive will not translate into accessible content afterward. And different sites such as Legacy Locker store an array of passwords to be utilized come death; each one has similar authority as the aforementioned sites.
Where it gets weirder is browsing The Digital Beyond, a site aggregating other webpages “designed to help you plan for your digital death and afterlife.” For instance, “Afternote” gives people the opportunity to “record your final wishes for your funeral and digital legacy,” essentially a digital will.
Most people are probably typing their wills on computers nowadays as it is, but what contributes to the eeriness of these places is how specialized they are, whereas sites like Facebook and Gmail are primarily utilities for the living with posthumous capacities. Above all, we have now reached a point in the digital age where we acknowledge and show legitimate concern for our material and digital lives alike.
The Internet is changing the way we shape our legacies. Our grandchildren will not refer to yearbooks, photo albums or home videos, but rather our Facebooks, Twitters and Instagrams. This is but another installment in our ongoing engulfment by the screen, another nail in the coffin to our immaterial surrender.
It’s a fact of life that we’re all going to die at some point. While it’s not something you probably want to think about, you can make things a lot easier on yourself (and your family) if you get everything in order now. Here’s what you need to do.
Your inevitable demise is hopefully not on your mind too often, but it’s still something you should think about long enough to get everything in order. Doing so ensures that everything in your life is organized so others can see what you want to happen after you’re gone, what you own, and how to handle a variety of situations.
If this sounds daunting, don’t worry too much: being unmarried, without children, and without a useful asset to speak of, I was able to get everything in order in about two hours (I still had a lawyer friend double-check everything to ensure I wasn’t accidentally giving my dog medical power of attorney). The more you own the longer it’ll take, but it’s not nearly as time-consuming as it looks because most of this stuff you probably already have ready to go.
Note: You can do a lot of this stuff on your own, but it’s a good idea to speak with a lawyer about your will, assets, and general estate planning. This guide is meant more to get you acquainted with terms, provide DIY options when applicable, and help you collect together what you need.
Decide What Happens After You Die
Planning for your death is actually two things: what happens after you die, and what happens if you’re ill and unable to handle decisions yourself. Let’s start with taking care of what happens after you die, starting with your last will and testament.
Write Your Last Will and Testament
Your last will and testament is a document that designates what happens with your property, guardianship of your children, and names the person (executor) who carries out your wishes after you die. If you don’t own a lot of property, a simple will is likely all you need.
It’s possible to draft up a simple will on your own, but it comes with its own set of pros and cons. These include problems with outdated information, specific state related tax issues, and how they handle specific trusts. As USNews notes, online wills are a one-size fits all solution, that can’t always account for the complicated situations of real life. However, if you only need a very basic will SmartLegalForms, LegalZoom, or RocketLawyer all provide a simple template for doing so for between $15 and $80. These laws and requirements change often, and if you don’t do it right you might unintentionally give someone more power over your estate then you want. Most simple wills have just a few sections where you can say what happens to your assets, and designate who gets any property you own.
When you’re drafting up your will, you’ll also name your executor. After you die, this is the person who handles your estate (all of your property), finances, debts, and everything else. It should go without saying this is a person you would trust to handle your estate when you’re alive. Once you die, a probate court will officially give power to your executor to handle your affairs. They do not have control over your estate until after you die.
Finally, to make the will legally binding, you’ll usually need to get signatures from at least two witnesses (who aren’t beneficiaries listed somewhere on the will), and it’s advisable to get it notarized by a notary public. You can usually find a notary public at your bank, and they act something like an official witness for legal forms.
If you have a lot of assets that you want to designate to multiple people, or to make sure your will is legally sound, you should speak with a lawyer about getting a more advanced will written up. Things start getting really tricky when finances are involved, and if you have a lot of assets it’s worth at least consulting with a lawyer (if you need help finding a reputable lawyer here’s our guide). I spoke with lawyer Elizabeth D Mitchell of Ambler & Keenan, LLC about the basics of what you can expect from an estate planning firm:
I usually start people out with a form and have them think about who they would name as their power of attorney. From there, we’d look at their assets and arrange for special circumstances. It’s important to remember that estate planning isn’t just what happens after death, it’s also about what happens if you’re incapacitated… What I always tell people is that it costs more to clean up a financial mess afterwards then it does to plan ahead.
Mitchell also adds that although it takes a little time to get everything in order, most estate planning lawyers offer some type of free consultation before they into your plan. This is because once they set up a plan with you, you’ll be dealing with them for the rest of your life so it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into. Mitchell also recommends people at least speak with a lawyer about writing up their will even if they don’t own a lot of property because it’s possible a single mistake could mess everything up. As the New York Times points out, the law is different in every state, and something as minor as not declaring the document a will out loud will make it invalid in certain states. A lawyer is also handy to set up trusts so your family gets paid out. According to the Wall Street Journal, trusts are increasingly important:
Rick Law, founder of estate-planning firm Law ElderLaw LLP in Aurora, Ill., says estate planners increasingly recommend revocable trusts in addition to wills, since they are more private and harder to dispute. “Every will is like a compass that points toward the closest courthouse,” he says.
A revocable living trust can be changed anytime during your lifetime. After you transfer ownership of various assets to the trust, you can serve as the trustee on behalf of beneficiaries you designate. Provided you do so, there aren’t any ongoing fees.
That said, if you don’t own that much, or you don’t mind leaving it all to one person, the whole process of writing out your own will takes about 20-30 minutes. Photo by Ken Mayer.
Outline the Funeral or Memorial Service
Obviously this step is optional, but if you want something specific to happen at your funeral or memorial service after you die it’s a good idea to get it in writing, and let your family know your wishes. Doing so gets rid of the headache of planning for your family, and ensures you get what you want. You don’t need to go in and plan everything out, but here are a few things worth considering:
If you want a burial, you need to find a grave plot. You’ll need to contact a local cemetery and purchase a plot if so. If you want a specific cemetery or plot, the earlier you do this step the better.
If you want cremation, you’ll work with a funeral director, so contact a local funeral home and arrange any details with them.
Decide if you want to pre-pay for any arrangements so you don’t have to worry about your family paying for anything while they wait to get access to your money. Since the average funeral is around $6,500, so it might be helpful to pay ahead of time.
At this time, you can also decide if you want anything specific in a memorial service, how you want the wake handled, and everything else. It’s also common to add these details to the will if you want to make sure your wishes are followed. Obviously this is a very personal event, and what you want depends a lot on your religious and social background. It’s a good idea to make your wishes known to family members to take the pressure off them when the time comes.
Designate What Happens If You’re Ill or Incapacitated
Just as important as what happens after you die is what happens if you’re ill, incompetent, or incapacitated. For this you need a living will, a power of attorney, and a medical power of attorney. If it sounds a little scary, don’t worry, it doesn’t take a lot of time and by the end you’ll know that you’ll only get the medical support you want.
Designate a Power of Attorney
A power of attorney is the person who can attend to financial or legal matters if you fall ill or are unable to handle them for yourself. It’s a good idea to choose a power of attorney so that they can attend to your financial and legal issues immediately after you fall ill. The power of attorney expires when you die, and the control of your finances typically shifts to the executor you named in your will. In some cases this is the same person.
The form to designate a power of attorney varies by state, but if you want to do it yourself you can get a document from the same services where you did your will (SmartLegalForms, LegalZoom, or RocketLawyer). If you’re giving one person complete control over everything you can likely manage to fill this out yourself, but if you want to limit what they can do it’s likely best to consult with a lawyer. Photo by Andy on Flickr.
Prepare a Living Will and Designate a Medical Power of Attorney
Every state has different paperwork for your living will, and different guidelines (you can grab paperwork specific to your state here). Essentially, each form allows you to designate what type of medical care you want to receive if you can’t speak for yourself, as well as designate if you want to donate any of your organs to science. Again, you’ll usually need two witnesses when you sign, and it’s wise to get it stamped by a notary. When you’re finished, keep a copy for yourself, and give copies to your physician, a family member, and your healthcare agent (your lawyer will also keep one if you use one). Additionally, if you do not want CPR or ACLS, you want to fill out a Do Not Resuscitate order with your doctor.
Not every medical procedure known to man is covered in the living will, and for those unexpected occurrences you may also want to designate a medical power of attorney (also known as an agent, attorney-in-fact, health care proxy, or health care surrogate depending on where you live). This person can make medical choices for you if they’re not included on your living will, or if you give them the power to override your previous choices if the circumstance warrants it. Additionally, they can also get the right to see your medical records (which is helpful if you choose anyone other than direct family), apply for Medicare on your behalf, and make choices about any medical procedures when you can’t. Again, this differs by state, but you’ll often name a medical power of attorney on your living will. Of course, before you give someone the power of attorney you’ll want to go over what type of medical treatments you want and don’t want, and make sure they agree to follow your wishes.
The living will and health care power of attorney forms are important for everyone to fill out. I did mine in about 10 minutes. With these completed, you’ll have the peace of mind that you’ll get the medical care you want (or don’t want) in just about every circumstance. Again, a lawyer is helpful here if you’re unclear about anything. If you’re not sure what type of treatments you’d like when you’re incapacitated you should speak with your doctor. Photo by Social Innovation Camp.
Organize Your Finances, Life Insurance, Bills, Debts, and Everything Else
While the bulk of your assets are distributed on your will, you still have a lot of financial obligations out in the world. Naming an executor on your will and a power of attorney is just one step. You’ve probably already done this, but it’s also important to get all your finances organized so your heirs can actually find what they need. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property, around $32.9 billion assets are currently unclaimed because the state took hold of them instead of the family. So, whether you decide to write up your will with an estate planner or not, you still need to get everything in order.
Two of the most important documents are your life insurance policy (especially policies from former employers) and retirement plans (as well as pensions and annuities), because both are easy to overlook. If your heirs don’t know these accounts and policies exist, they can’t claim them and the funds usually go to the state. So, gather up your various policies and keep them together.
If you don’t have a life insurance policy, you might want to get one, and we’ve walked you through what you need before. A life insurance policy isn’t just about covering your salary after you die, it’s about helping your family pay for funeral costs, car loans, credit cards, mortgages, and everything else.
To make the process easier on your family when you pass away, it’s also a good idea to gather together all your debts (especially big ones like your mortgage, car loans, or credit cards) in one place so your heirs can pay your bills for you while they figure everything else out. You likely already do this, but it’s good to keep everything together so they don’t have to search for it. To make the process even easier (and skip over any conflicts with power of attorney), you can add a family member to at least one of your bank accounts so they always have access to some of your funds.
If you have a lot of sources of income, it’s a good idea to meet with a financial advisor to get everything organized. You can find one through The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. With your financial advisor you can set up beneficiaries for retirement plans, make your accounts accessible, and create spending plans for your surviving family.
Secure Your Digital Life (and Pass the Keys onto Someone You Trust)
The reason this is an important step is not just to give your heirs access to your bank accounts, it’s also so they can shut down services you don’t want around. For example, Facebook can memorialize your page if you want, but if you don’t want that digital record sticking around, you might make a request to your heirs to delete it outright. Likewise, if an heir wants access to your Google account and you don’t give them the password, they’ll need to provide a name, address, photo ID, email, and death certificate. Which is to say, it’s a lot easier for your family if you just give them your passwords.
So, when you’re putting together your list of usernames and passwords, include instructions for how you want those accounts handled, including if you want them to do anything specific with your home computer. It might seem a little weird, but if you want a little control over how your digital life is handled after you die, this is the only option. If you’re using a password manager like Lastpass then you can just look in your password vault for a full list of all your accounts and passwords. It only takes a couple of minutes to copy the ones that really matter.
Set Up a Master File of Everything
Once you have all your paperwork sorted, wills filled out, and everything else, it’s time to pack that all into master file you share with a close family member or friend. Remember, this includes everything about your life, so keep it in a safe place (or in a safe deposit box), and share it’s location with your family. After completing the steps above, you should have everything in order, but here’s what you should include (List culled together from UC Berkeley, The Wall Street Journal, and our own “In-Case-of Emergency” document):
Letter of instruction
Social security numbers/cards
Passports (numbers and expiration dates)
Driver’s licenses (number, expiration dates)
Names/address/telephone numbers of healthcare professionals
Healthcare proxies/living wills
Medications (dosages, name of prescribing physicians, pharmacy, address/telephone
Social worker or caseworker names and contact information
Passwords, web sites, and other digital information
Income sources (retirement and/or disability benefits, Social Security, etc.)
Financial assets (institution names, account numbers, address/telephone, form of ownership, current value) of cash, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, money market funds, retirement and pension plans, IRAs, annuities, life insurance
Real Estate (property addresses, location of deeds, form of ownership, current value)
Other assets (location of items/titles/documents/form of ownership, current value) including automobiles, boats, inheritances, precious gems, collectibles, household items, hidden valuables/items in storage, loans to family members/friends
Liabilities (Creditor institutions, address/telephone, approximate debt) of mortgages, personal loans, credit cards, notes, IOUs, other).
While some of these records need to be physical copies (like your birth certificate), others, like contact info, a copy of your will, and property information can be digital, so use whatever system you’re more comfortable with. Whatever you decide, keep everything organized in a folder together, and let a family member know where everything is.
If you need a little help getting everything organized, webapps Everplans, Get Your Shit Together, and CNN’s guide to estate planning are great resources that guide you through more of the specifics. As always, if things get too complicated, don’t hesitate to contact an estate planner for help—most will offer you a free consultation.