June 24, 2014
Take digital inventory
For each, give instructions
Get the terms of service
Save the information
Get legal advice
By Laura Shin
When Chanel Reynolds was 39 and her husband, Jose Hernando, was 43, he was hit by a van while riding his bike.
It smashed his upper spine and caused an immediate traumatic cardiac
arrest, but he made it to the hospital with a trace of a pulse. For a
week, until doctors determined he would never regain consciousness,
Reynolds, who most wanted to be with her husband, had to spend precious
hours dealing with a host of problems starting with the fact that she
didn't know the four-digit passcode to his phone.
"That meant I
couldn't get a hold of his dad," she says. (She had some family numbers,
but not all; his parents had separated when he was young and were not in
contact.) For hours, she tried various passcodes, but the phone would
lock her out for longer periods of time the more failed attempts she
made. "Eventually, the doctors were telling me he could die any minute
and that they hoped he would be stable enough to take into surgery and
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 is absolutely not the way you want to let somebody know that something has happened."
Reynolds was encountering something relatively new in this digital age
-- the fact that when we go, we carry a lot of our most important
possessions with us. In the past, when information was held on paper,
our loved ones could more easily gain access to our bank accounts,
health insurance policies, business assets, photos and more.
Jamie Hopkins, a professor at The American College of Financial
Services, says, "Normally, you would say, 'I know my dad has a couple
bank accounts. Where are they?' " And you show up to his house, but if
he's paperless, there won't be mail coming from Bank of America or Wells
Fargo or Wachovia, and the only place that mail is going is to his
email. So if you don't have access to the email, you can't really take
care of that person's finances."
Also, as more and more people
are learning nowadays, we will all experience "digital death," leaving
behind a "digital afterlife" or "digital legacy" in the form of our
online identities and possessions, which will essentially outlive us in
the cloud -- whether through our email accounts, Facebook and Twitter
profiles, online photos and videos, blogs, eBay and Etsy storefronts and
more. And for those we leave behind, if we don't prepare, they could
lose these parts of us as well.
Reynolds says, "because I didn't
have [passwords and access to accounts] ahead of time and because I
realized it was going to be hard to get them, you end up having to make
dozens of phone calls over and over and over again and basically talk to
the 'I'm sorry for your loss' department just to get your bank account
turned over to you, or access the things that were in your partner's
name only." (She also didn't even know if their wills were updated or if
they had life insurance, which prompted her to create a website called
Get Your [Stuff] Together, which outlines all the documents one should
have in place in an emergency.)
In the United States, the value
of online assets is nearly $55,000 per internet user, according to
online security company McAfee, and while Hopkins says that much of that
value is probably in small businesses, he also says, "There's a lot of
unclaimed life insurance out there because nobody even knows somebody
had a policy. Those types of issues will be highlighted as more and more
things go digital."
Evan Carroll, coauthor of Your Digital
Afterlife and author at TheDigitalBeyond.com
, a website that monitors
related issues, says, "Ideally, we'd have systems and laws and protocols
in place and your heirs could gain access to your digital materials and
you wouldn't have to do anything special for that to happen.
Unfortunately, both our social norms and our laws have not caught up
with the digital lives that we're leading today."
A group called
the Uniform Laws Commission created a Committee on Fiduciary Access to
Digital Assets that is currently drafting recommendations for digital
assets statutes that states can adapt or adopt. (Seven states already
have adopted such statutes -- Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana,
Virginia, Idaho, Nevada and Oklahoma.)
But until the laws do
catch up, here what you can do to reduce the pain and suffering of our
loved ones by preparing beforehand.
1. Take a digital inventory.
Yes, this sounds like a beast, but you should try to log all the
digital accounts you have, though obviously certain ones are higher
priority than others:
- Your computers, smartphones and other devices
including tablets, ebook readers, mp3 players, etc.
- Email accounts
- Financial institutions and policies, for checking and savings accounts;
credit cards; retirement accounts; other investment accounts; student
loans; mortgage lenders; life, health, disability, auto and
renter's/homeowner's insurance; Paypal; etc.
- Social media accounts, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, etc.
- Online businesses that produce revenue, such as eBay, Etsy, Amazon Marketplace, a blog that pulls in advertising, etc.
- Places where you upload photos, videos or other media, such as Flickr, Picasa, Instagram, Youtube, Vimeo, etc.
- Sites or applications where you store store music, movies, ebooks such as iTunes or Amazon
site where you've registered your credit card information, such as
online stores and services. This may seem extreme, but credit card fraud
often involves people who have recently died, and those bills could end
up going to spouses.
2. For each, give instructions for how loved ones should handle the account after you're gone.
Delineate which accounts should be deleted. For other accounts, note
your username and password or passcode and designate someone to receive
them. When deciding what to do with each account, consider these
: It's best, if possible, to give access to
your email account, says Carroll. "Email is the master key to other
accounts. As long as your executor has access to your email account,
chances are good that they can reset that password and obtain the
appropriate access to other accounts."
If you're uncomfortable
with the idea of others looking at your correspondence, "you could say,
'While I know you would need access for these reasons, I prefer if you
don't go looking for this or that type of message,' '' says Carroll. (See
below for important notes on the differences between Gmail's and Yahoo
Mail's policies.) Online businesses
: "When it comes to online
businesses -- eBay or Etsy or advertising on a blog you write -- the
financial value of these assets is a real financial value to the estate,
so you want to make sure that is handled the appropriate way through
your will," says Carroll. With anything financial, he adds, executors
will need to follow the appropriate policies of both the service and
orders in your will. Social media
: "Sometimes it makes sense for
a social media account to remain in place to serve as a memorial," says
Carroll. "Facebook has a way to memorialize accounts. On Twitter, some
families have chosen to keep Twitter accounts online so people can read
them, though obviously there are no additional posts there. It would be
strange and almost unwelcome if an account from someone who is deceased
continues to post. A final notification would be appropriate, but beyond
that, it becomes an unwelcome reminder of a potentially sad event." If
you'd like the account to have a final statement, you can leave
instructions as to what it should be.
3. Acquaint yourself with the terms of service of all your accounts, but especially your email accounts.
Yahoo's terms of service state that your account cannot be turned over
to anyone else, and that, in fact, accounts of deceased users are
subject to permanent deletion. This would affect everything ranging from
email to Flickr photos. Though some people may prefer that policy, if
those terms don't sit right with you, you could switch to email and the
photo-sharing site Picasa by Google, which offers an Inactive Account
Manager that allows you to dictate in advance how your possessions held
by Google should be handled.
Reynolds also suggests having a
digital power of attorney written into your power of attorney document
that empowers someone to get your assets online. "It clearly states your
intent that someone can go get your information for you," she says. "It
doesn't always mean the companies will give it back to you -- there
aren't federal digital laws yet -- but you can have more power over what
happens to your Facebook account or your YouTube channel so it's more
what your wishes are than what the company policy is."
4. Determine where to save this information.
The challenge with storage is that, if someone undesirable accessed
this information before you died, it could wreak a lot of havoc in your
life, so you need to find a place that's secure but that a loved one
could also easily access in the event of your death or if you became
incapacitated. "You can't put that [information] in a will because, one,
wills become public once they go through probate," says Hopkins. "The
other problem is that wills -- you have to keep updating them every time
your passwords and usernames change."
He recommends putting
everything into a document stored on an external encrypted hard drive.
That also protects against the possibility that someone could either
steal or be on your computer, going through your passwords.
Carroll adds that you could also put them on paper in a locked file
drawer if you have a high level of trust in your family, and that many
attorneys will also store information for you, though that might become a
pain every time you want to update a password or add to the document.
You could also turn to one of a number of services like LastPass or
SecureSafe that have cropped up to assist people in this task. With
LastPass, you would only need to share your master password, and with
SecureSafe, it gives you a 64-character code that you can include in
your estate documents so someone can inherit your account.
Hopkins adds that some services will allow you to have more control over
who sees which accounts -- for instance, you could use the service to
delete a certain account without any family members knowing you had it,
and send one account to one person, but another account to a different
Ultimately, Carroll says, you should choose whatever method is best for your situation.
5. Get legal advice and tell your loved ones where the information is stored.
Because this does involve your estate, obtain legal advice to make sure
you're in line with state laws or any other laws you may not be aware
of. And unless you tell someone where this information is stored, some
or all of your preparation could be for naught.
put this off -- and don't think you have to do it perfectly to do it at
all. Even if you only have time for one small step, just do that.
"We suffer from this thing that researchers call benign neglect. It's
the same thing with backing up our computers," says Carroll. "We know we
need to do it, but we think, 'I'll get around to that another time.'
With backing up your computer, oftentimes, it's not until someone loses
significant data that they decide, 'I need to be diligent about backing
up.' Unfortunately, with death we only have one chance. Take some
action, because that's a million times better than taking no action."
Find out more about Estate Planning
MOAA's Estate Planning guides you through wills, power of attorney, probate, property laws, trusts, gifting, special relationship situations, and more. Make sure your estate is squared away today.
PREMIUM and LIFE members, login to access this publication.
Not yet a PREMIUM or LIFE Member? Join or upgrade your membership today.
This article first appeared on Forbes.com and is
reprinted with permission.
Shin contributes to Forbes.com and SmartPlanet, among other
publications. Her most recent e-book is "The Only 3 Money Principles You
Need To Know."
Copyright Laura Shin and Military Officers Association of America. All rights reserved.
Image credit: scyther5 / Shutterstock.com