Op-Ed by PETER MAURER
Like many people, I have too many usernames and passwords to keep track of. Even with a very clever and simple way my son shared with me a few years ago, there are still too many for me to monitor inside my head. I fear my cerebral hard-drive is nearing or at capacity. Some sites require capital letters, punctuation/characters, numbers, no more than, or no less than a certain number of characters.
Even though the experts caution us about not using ‘122345678’, ‘password’ or ‘abcdef’, it is absolutely shocking how many people employ such simplistic passwords, and then act indignant and surprised when their account gets hacked. On the other hand, not many of us want to use Ap1lL84&fd54#^ for a password. Try memorizing a few dozen of those, reminiscent of the ones cable companies send along with their wireless routers, and watch your brain turn to mush.
But however you generate usernames and passwords, have you ever considered what happens to all those accounts when we die? While your heirs and executors are busy struggling with your loss, they then have to worry about accessing your online, digital life.
And I’m not just talking about Facebook, Instagram, or email, but bank accounts, retirement investments, pensions, Social Security and Medicare, just to name a few. Toss in utilities, credit cards, rent or mortgage payments, cell phones, and other recurring monthly charges that may likely be on autopay, and you have left a veritable quagmire of digital residue for your surviving loved ones to sort through. And if you have a YouTube channel, eBay, items posted on Craig’s List, or some other revenue-generating presence on the internet, how do your heirs access that?
You can see very quickly that our digital life is rather large, and the footprint gets bigger with each passing day. By the time many of us will be in our 70s or 80s, we will have a rather impressive number of online accounts, each with their own username and password. And if you haven’t left behind a means to access those accounts, your survivors are going to face a gauntlet trying to access those accounts.
In fact, many online sites have successfully and repeatedly fought off legal challenges from heirs and executors trying to access the online accounts of the deceased. And despite the explosive growth of the Internet and each person’s digital presence, the law in most instances has not kept up.
Increasingly, the courts are treating your digital life as a tangible piece of property that can be passed on, so you should make plans accordingly. If you die today, and have not left behind the means by which a trusted person can access those accounts, you are likely out of luck. While it is easier to go to a bank or brokerage company with a death certificate and get things straightened around than it is email accounts, there is no guarantee that they will be able to cancel all of the autopay financial arrangements that you’ve made before the next billing cycle.
What is designed to simplify our lives while alive can be quite the opposite once we’ve passed away.
What to do?
It might be so simple as physically writing down the sites and accounts you use, along with the usernames and passwords, and putting it in a safe place. Just be sure to have easy access to this list so that you can occasionally update it. If you have a safe deposit box, that seems a good place for your list. For those of us who have set up trust accounts, it seems logical to include that digital list in the tangible property section of the trust.
But however you do it, do it, and do it sooner than you think you should.