A relative of mine—let’s call her Kate—recently died, and I watched from a distance as others dealt with her affairs. When someone passed 25 years ago or so, before the internet was an everyday fact of life, there were paper records such as mail, invoices and bank statements to help piece things together. In the modern world, our affairs can be conducted largely online, leaving a scant physical trail to follow. Without knowledge of what accounts exist, and how to access them, relatives may have a hard time figuring out what needs to be done.
Think about it for a moment. We conduct our digital lives on phones, computers and other devices. In most cases, you need a PIN or a password to see what is on someone’s device, and you need a password to access their email account.
In this particular case, Kate had provided the passwords to her phone, computer, and Gmail account to a family member, and let them know that additional account and password information was saved in a document on her computer (a password list). Alas, not all of that information was current, creating additional work. But her situation wasn’t a complete mess either, mostly because she provided the necessary information.
Kate also provided instructions about what she wanted done with her Facebook account. If you do nothing, Facebook will “memorialize” your account when informed you are dead, essentially freezing it in time. If you’d rather control what happens to your Facebook account, you can set your account to be deleted upon your death, or assign a legacy contact to manage your account. (Both choices can be found under Settings > Memorialization Settings.) A legacy contact is probably better than giving someone your Facebook password, since a legacy contact is limited in what they can do. Specifically, they can’t read your messages, remove friends, or make new friend requests. They can change your profile and cover photos, accept new friend requests, and write a post, which is pinned to the top of your profile. Kate didn’t use the settings features. Instead, she asked her sister to delete her account.
As for other social media accounts, Instagram allows for account memorialization or deletion. Twitter and LinkedIn only allow for account deletion. Other services have their own policies.
“When I die, delete my browser history,” is a funny line, but there’s truth to it. There’s a reason people are concerned about their privacy, and death sometimes reveals deeply personal matters that we’d rather not have known, or could be hurtful or damaging to the survivors. Obviously, you want your post-mortem wishes carried out by someone you can trust, and won’t pry into your digital life. And if you set your affairs up correctly in advance, it’s less likely that someone will, for instance, have to look through your email to find information to manage your post-mortem affairs.
The sad truth is that death can strike at any time, and the best approach is to be prepared because, let’s face it, no one outsmarts death. To most people, that means having a will, instructions to an executor detailing the disposition of your estate. Surprisingly, only about 42 percent of U.S. adults have a will. But what about providing the information such as online accounts and passwords that family members may need long before your will is probated and read?
A letter of intent can help smooth the way. According to Investopedia, a letter of intent (also known as a post-mortem letter), “… includes information your family and friends will need in order to cope if you die or for any reason become unable to act. It should list everything from the passwords to your online financial accounts to the music you want playing at your funeral.”
If you read last month’s column, you know that a great way to securely store account information is with a password manager. So itemizing the accounts that are part of a letter of intent is a great incentive to set up a password manager. And a letter of intent is a great place to provide the master password for your password manager to the person(s) who will need it. Best of all, your survivors don’t need to use your computer to access the password manager, only the master password and a browser.
Wills, letters of intent, and computer backups are all instances of I-should-really-get- around-to-doing-that one of these days. Though my spouse (aka the Chief Domestic Officer of our household) manages the bulk of our financial life, writing this article showed me a few things I can do to make it easier for her, if I get run over by a truck. Regardless of how I go, it’s worth the modest effort of thinking through a post-mortem letter in advance for the peace of mind that comes from knowing that things are planned out and ready to go. That’s one less thing for her to worry about when my time inevitably comes.