A few years ago my wife, Suzy, put her arms around me and said, “don’t you dare pre-decease me.” I thought, wow, she can’t imagine life without me. That feeling quickly dissipated when she added: “There is no way I could figure out how to run this household with all the on-line things you’re doing.”
She was right. It had nothing to do with her ability with the computer or Internet. She knows how to research almost anything, and every day reads on-line newspaper from at least three continents. She is very competent on probably a dozen programs from iMovie to Word. It had to do with knowing where everything was and, more importantly, how to access it.
I pretty much run the household business plus my own company in a paper-less environment. About 80% of our household-related financial transactions that used to be done with paper checks are done electronically: mortgage payments, credit card payments, utility bills, insurance, and payments to most semi-predictable companies like newspapers, medical services, and service companies are all done electronically. This involves knowing a couple of dozen web sites and username/password combinations and keeping track of when what needs to be done. I’ve been evolving this methodology over the past dozen plus years, and have the cryptic cheat sheets to help me. But Suzy wouldn’t understand much in those notes.
Suzy’s Mother died in 2005. She had no online presence, and everything was there – in several huge trash bag’s worth of paper. It took Suzy and her siblings some significant digging to figure out all the pieces: insurance policies, bank accounts, utilities, and other connections.
Because of the accounting work after her Mother’s death and her “loving” comment, I decided to create a document that described everything she, or our kids, would need if I wasn’t around. I called it my “Just in Case” document. It took a few days’ work over a couple of weeks, and needs periodic updates to keep it current as passwords change and accounts get added and deleted, but I believe I won’t leave a real mess. It’s about 24 pages and stored in a place known to Suzy. It starts with a description of where the most current version of the document is on my computer and in the backup in the safe. It contains information including account number, contact information, URL, username and password, and payment mechanism for every
- Bank account
- Company that we pay electronically
- Appliance service company
- Energy, water, sewer, trash utilities
- EZ Pass
- Fitness club
- Home owners association
- Internet / TV
- Security companies (home and ID)
- State, Federal and local taxing authorities
- Retail company we have an on-line sign-on (how did we get so many?)
- Credit/debit card
- Insurance policy
- Investment account
- PayPal account
- Retirement account (including Social Security)
In addition, it contains:
- User name and password for each computer in the house
- Email address password (how did we get to eight email accounts?)
- Unlock code on smart phones
- Personal information (SSN, birth date, passport number, …)
- Contents of the safe and how to get into it
- Contact information for lawyer and accountant
We also sent the document to our kids.
Then about two weeks ago I hear an article on NPR titled After Death, Protecting Your ‘Digital Afterlife’. It expanded these same ideas into some other areas.
Most of us have a lot of information out in the Cloud, information that we think of as our property:
- Potentially thousands of emails stored on your email provider’s servers
- Twitter or Tumblr account
- Your Facebook page
- Your LinkedIn information
- Your Blog or web site
- Documents and pictures in a Google portal, Microsoft Windows Live “My Documents”, Apple MobileMe or similar service
- Pictures in a Yahoo Flickr album
- Books in an Amazon or Barns and Nobel e-book account
- World of Warcraft and other online “worlds” where you can accumulate stuff that has value in that world, and in some cases may have value in this one also
- Online gambling account
There are three issues about that data to worry about when you die. OK, not your problem then, so maybe issues to worry about now to make it easier for those who have to sweep up after you.
- How do they retrieve the data if they want to?
- How do they get rid of the data?
- What do you want done with the data?
Some things are fairly simple: for your emails, you can set your email program (e.g., Outlook) to automatically remove copies of sent and received emails from their server at some point after you have retrieved the message. I set it for one week. If you are using a browser as the only way you access a mail server, as many people do with gmail, you can go in and manually delete all of the messages.
Many of the other on-line “storage” facilities have a way to extract data and/or delete the account, if someone can get into them.
Just knowing that you had an account is not enough. Some services, like Twitter, do allow an executor with a death certificate to retrieve the tweets and terminate the account. However, many of the services (like Yahoo) have terms of service that specifically indicate that the account is not transferable with no right of survival, and they won’t provide access to anyone with any paperwork except a court order. (It will take years and real dollars to get the court order.) There is no standard, and no real law, that covers what happens to your data in the Cloud when you die. Oklahoma has a law that allows your executor to access your online accounts, but it is fairly new and I don’t believe has been tested fully in the courts. I also believe that is the only State in the US with such a law.
As you think about creating a “Just in Case” document, you should include access information for any other service that has something that you or your survivors might think is valuable. If you have particular desires for some of the data, include that in your “Just in Case” document: for example, “give my Farmland account to my niece Shirley.”
On the other hand, you may have some data in the Cloud that you don’t want to survive you. Tell someone you trust that you want that account cancelled and the data destroyed along with the access information. I probably wouldn’t include that in the same “Just in Case” document.
If a family member or friend asks you to be the executor of their Will, you should discuss their electronic legacy with them. If they haven’t created some kind of inventory, you might suggest they do so. Paper can be found, sometimes with real effort, in desks, file cabinets, and old shoeboxes. It is impossible to find all the electronic tendrils a person has left.
If you are the executor of a Will upon the death of someone and have received this kind of information, my suggestion is that you act on it quickly. Don’t ask, and don’t tell the service provider what you are doing. Just do it. While I’m not a lawyer, until the digital death issue is really resolved, I believe you would be acting in the spirit of the person’s wishes by dealing with that data.
You probably cannot actually get rid of all the data in the Cloud. Your data and thousands or millions of others are all comingled in some of these services, plus there are backup and archive copies in remote locations, probably not all in the same country you live in. Twitter messages are archived by the Library of Congress, for example. Plus copies of some of the emails, tweets, and other documents in dozens of email collections across many different personal computers and servers.
Do not put your passwords in a Will – a Will becomes a public document fairly quickly, and your passwords are likely to change over the years between when you write the Will and when it is needed.
The last word:
As you know by now, I am paranoid. The “Just in Case” document I created is necessary, and dangerous. It is an identity thief’s golden egg. It needs to be protected.
Keep your sense of humor.