June 24, 2014
Take digital inventory
For each, give
terms of service
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.
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
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
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
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
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;
- Social media
accounts, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest,
- Online businesses
that produce revenue, such as eBay, Etsy, Amazon Marketplace, a blog that pulls
in advertising, etc.
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
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 guidelines: Email
: 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.
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.
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."
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 loved one.
Ultimately, Carroll says, you should choose whatever method is best for your
5. Get legal advice and tell your loved ones
where the information is stored.
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.
Finally, don't 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
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