Planning Your Estate in this Digital World

november 10, 2021 | password safety
Your estate plan should include information on all your digital accounts and files

When a loved relative or close friend dies, they can expect some rocky times regardless of the circumstances. Friends will ply survivors with buckets of advice—much of it inaccurate. A death certificate is not a magic key to open all the deceased's digital files, for example.

Settling an estate can be straightforward if the manager locates all the needed files without difficulty. However, in today’s digital world, reliance on digital files and electronic billing often creates a giant hurdle.

Weigh these obstacles to save those you love significant headaches once you're gone. A road map to your various accounts and holdings along with monthly bills and autopay data becomes a priceless final gift.

Welcome to Your Digital Afterlife

We live so much of our daily lives online. Paying bills, reconciling bank accounts, shopping for goods and clothing, and more. If you pay everything online and have opted to "go paperless" with statements and invoices, ask yourself whether anyone else could deduce your arrangements without knowing usernames and passcodes. They might get lucky, but in most cases, they won't.

If you have a major music or movie account, it usually dies with you. User agreements clearly state that the purchaser does not own this stuff, just the license to use it while alive. A family sharing plan is an option if you'd like those who live on to share your favorite tunes, but if the deceased originated the joint account, swapping it to a living family member could be cumbersome.

The same can happen with airline miles, hotel rewards, credit card cash rewards and book files. Consider your favorite airline then you and the family can pool miles to dodge this issue. Many airline policies will state that miles and rewards are not exchangeable, but customer service reps can often help you move them around.

Gamer files and other accounts also get tricky after you die. Unless a fellow gamer can log into your accounts before death, your after-death experience may go counter to your spoken wishes.

You'll save any survivors countless hassles if you plan well. Ownership can be spelled out in your Will and hopefully, will be honored then.

It's a good idea to leave clear instructions about what you want to happen with your social media, computer games and other online accounts after death.


You probably don’t realize all the vital data you entrust to email. Delegate your email access credentials to someone. That’s a key step especially if you're a large or small business owner. Access may also be desirable if the deceased was involved in an active lawsuit. Litigation often survives death, and lawyers need data, too.

One common but erroneous belief is that your service provider will unlock email accounts once you present a death certificate. The reality is very fuzzy. And more difficult and costly. Some providers are viewed as obsessive about privacy even though federal law doesn't protect it after death and individual state regulations can vary.

One service provider even requires probate and a court order before providing assistance in accessing a deceased person's device or personal information they stored in the cloud.

Even with such documents, the service provider will not cough up a password. You might obtain temporary access to the cloud, but the service provider could erase all that data when notified of the death. Plan your efforts meticulously. Any entry you'd get to the cloud might be brief.

Yet another service provider takes a similar tack offering no guarantees and no passwords. Instead, on a case-by-case basis, the service provider may share content with selected individuals. They also provide an Inactive Accounts Manager feature that the living can use while they're still around.

Of course, there are cases in which credit bureaus and other data repositories that use KBAs are easily hacked. KBAs, or knowledge-based answers, include questions like the individual's maiden name, your mortgage holder and further details others very close to the deceased might know. That's one reason why some security experts advocate replacing KBAs with other proof that isn't easily gleaned from online posts or quizzes.

Don't force your survivors to spend days guessing your passwords. They'll probably end up locked out and highly frustrated.

Accounts, Friends & Contacts

Notifications are one of the most daunting tasks an executor faces. A simple list of contacts would be priceless.

Tracking down all your financial accounts is a massive challenge, too, if they're 100% digital. Details regarding life insurance, auto coverage and other policies should also be well-documented before you die.

Social Media

For many, social media has replaced the newspaper obituary. Friends exchange fond memories, and those who carry an overload of grief can find comfort. However, it can also become a runaway series of posts. Do you want those pages to live on after your death? For how long?

Many survivors state they find comfort in revisiting the deceased's social accounts and some can live well into the future.

Help While You're Living

Free tools can be found online for digital afterlife planning. Specify what you'd like done to each social media site but know that this document may not legally bind your heirs.

Using a password manager helps survivors a great deal. Share the master passcode with a trusted friend or relative. As you add accounts or update passcodes, the manager's software updates those so your agent, after you die, would be able to access all stored accounts. Bonus: you only have to remember the master passcode, too, and could use unique codes for each of your accounts with ease.

There's also the option of hiring a digital gatekeeper. These companies provide encrypted storage in the cloud for all your last wishes and essential documents for a small annual fee.

Shield Yourself

Draft a long list of assets. Then add creditors. Don't forget to list accounts like PayPal, Instacart and the gym. Finally, date documents to give the finder a reference to when you collected these facts. This date sets the cornerstone of your digital history.

The Federal Trade Commission's advice on dealing with the deceased's debts is valuable.

If you establish a digital exit plan, you must tell someone. Better yet, tell two "someones" at a minimum. Update your account numbers and instructions annually, if not quarterly.

IDShield is a product of Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. d/b/a LegalShield (“LegalShield”). LegalShield provides access to identity theft protection and restoration services. IDShield plans are available at individual or family rates. For complete terms, coverage, and conditions, please see an identity theft plan. This is meant to provide general information and is not intended to provide legal or tax advice, render an opinion, or provide any specific recommendations.

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