How to prepare for death in a digital age

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It may sound morbid but having a cyber footprint means there are more things we need to plan for in the unfortunate event of our death.

Chanel Reynolds was 39 and her husband, José Hernando, was 43 when he was hit by a van while riding his bike.

The impact smashed his upper spine and caused an immediate traumatic cardiac arrest, but he made it to the hospital with a trace of a pulse. However, instead of being able to spend precious time with her husband during the week that he clung to life, Reynolds had to spend hours dealing with a host of problems that stemmed from the fact she didn’t know the four-digit passcode to his phone.

“That meant I couldn’t get hold of his dad,” she says, explaining that his parents had separated when he was young and weren’t in contact. For hours she tried various codes but the more failed attempts she made, the longer the phone would lock her out.

“Eventually, the doctors were telling me that he could die any minute; they hoped he’d be stable enough to take into surgery [but] there was a 50/50 chance that he wouldn’t make it off the table, so I had to do a Facebook update saying, ‘Hey, everyone in the Hernando family: Someone give me a call.’

“That’s absolutely not the way you want to let somebody know that something has happened,” she adds.

Reynolds was encountering a modern problem of this digital age – the fact that when we go, we take a lot of important information with us. She’s since used the experience of losing her husband in 2009 to set up getyourshittogether.org, a website outlining all the documents you should have in place for an emergency.

In the past, when information was held on paper, loved ones could more easily gain access to bank accounts, health insurance policies, business assets, photos and more.

Jamie Hopkins, an associate professor of taxation at The American College of Financial Services, says that these days many details are paperless – for example, bank accounts. “So if you don’t have access to their email, you can’t really take care of that person’s finances,” he adds.

As more and more people are learning the hard way, many of us leave behind a “digital afterlife” or “digital legacy” in the form of online identities and possessions that will essentially outlive us. These range from email accounts, Facebook and Twitter profiles and online photos, videos and blogs to eBay and Etsy storefronts.

If we’re not prepared, the people we leave behind could lose these parts of us as well, so here are some key steps to consider for proofing your digital life.

Take a digital inventory

Yes, this sounds like a beast, but you should try to log all the digital accounts you have, including email accounts, online banking, loan and insurance details; social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest; places where you upload photos and video such as Flickr, Instagram and Youtube, and store music and e-books such as iTunes and Amazon; and any site where you’ve registered your credit card information, such as online stores and services (credit card fraud often involves details of people who’ve recently died).

Give handling instructions

For each account, leave instructions on handling after you’re gone (for example, which ones you want to have deleted). For others, note your username and password, and designate someone to give them to. US author Evan Carroll, co-writer of Your Digital Afterlife and one of the creators of thedigitalbeyond.com, a think tank for digital death issues, advises treating your email account as the master key to other accounts. As long as the executor of your digital estate has access to that, chances are they can reset that password and obtain the appropriate access to other accounts.

As for social media, sites such as Facebook offer ways to memorialise a person’s account, which some families choose to do. If you’d like your account to have a final statement, you can leave instructions as to what it should be.

Know the “death terms” of your accounts

Acquaint yourself with the terms of service of all of your accounts, particularly your email providers. Some sites, such as Yahoo, state that your account can’t be turned over to anyone else and that, in fact, accounts of deceased users are subject to permanent deletion. This would have a knock-on effect on everything from emails to photo-sharing sites. If those terms don’t sit right with you, you may want to consider switching to a different service provider.

Choose where to save your information

The challenge with storage is that if someone undesirable accesses this information before you die it could wreak havoc in your life, so you need to find a place that’s secure but that a loved one could easily access in the event of your death or if you became incapacitated.

Hopkins recommends putting all of this information into one document and storing it on an external and encrypted hard drive.

That also protects against the possibility of someone who steals or illegally accesses your computer being able to go through your passwords. Other options include storing the details on paper in a locked drawer or asking your attorney if they can store the information for you.

Get legal advice and tell loved ones where it is

Because all of this involves your “estate”, you need to obtain legal advice to make sure you’re in line with state laws or any laws you may not be aware of. However, don’t forget to tell someone how to access this legal advice, too – otherwise some or all of your preparation could be for nothing.

Finally, don’t put off this digital planning, and don’t assume that you have to do it perfectly or not do it at all. Even if you only have time for one small step, just do that.

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