My mother kept a little black book. Not the fun kind filled with suitors’ phone numbers; rather, a binder that contained her accounts, passwords and ongoing bills. When an out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis took my mom from independent woman to completely disabled within weeks, the book was my caregiving road map. It held information that she very suddenly could not remember nor convey, but that I needed to keep the gears of her life turning.
With the book, I kept the utilities on at my mother's house, paid her mortgage and other bills, and handled insurance, work benefits and disability applications. When she died, the book helped me liquidate her assets, finalize her debts, and share the news of her passing through her email accounts and social media.
My mom's estate planning legal documents did not include a digital plan, which was not uncommon in 2010 when she made her will. So, even though she told me I had permission, I had no true legal authority to access her online accounts and digital property. Her foresight in creating the little black book helped me get by, but there is certainly a better way and many more options for digital planning today than there were even a few short years ago.
Why digital planning matters
Our digital assets (websites we own, blogs, art, music, writing, business websites, cryptocurrency and so much more) and digital information (email, social media and banking accounts) exist in our digital devices such as our computers and smartphones.
Most states have passed laws that give a person's family or executor the right to access and manage digital assets, information and devices after the person dies. But it is imperative to write out clear instructions for your family/executor and to keep the instructions updated to help them handle your final affairs.
Equally important is that we give someone authority to access and manage digital assets and information before we die. Here's why: In many households, adults split the duties. One opens utilities accounts and pays those, another handles the car insurance, and so on. Family members may keep separate bank accounts that receive direct deposits or cover certain bills. In one-member households, the individual handles everything and usually in their name solely. Whether living independently or with others, many of us don't think about who would take over (and how!) if we were suddenly unable to handle our day-to-day life due to a medical crisis or catastrophe.
Perhaps because of that, 1 in 3 caregivers say a top caregiving challenge is locating passwords and accounts, and 49 percent don't have legal authorization to ask providers (such as banks, credit card companies, email services) to disclose any details or give them access to known accounts. You cannot simply ask a provider for permission to handle another person's digital life; criminal and data privacy laws prevent providers from giving access and information away. A caregiver without proper paperwork is unlikely to be successful without court intervention. A thorough digital plan can prevent headaches and unnecessary expenses for our future caregivers.
Dos and don'ts for crafting your digital plan
- Prepare (or revise) your estate planning documents to address digital assets and information. Ensure that all your documents (wills, powers of attorney and trusts) authorize somebody to be your “agent” for your digital life and your executor for your digital estate. For example, your documents may include language giving your chosen person authority to “access, control, use, cancel, deactivate, or delete Digital Accounts and Digital Assets, and to access, control, use, deactivate or dispose of Digital Devices.” This makes sure your caregiver would not be essentially hacking into your accounts by using your password and login information, but truly has legal consent to do so.
- Back up your data, frequently. Have an automatic backup on your files scheduled regularly. Keep a storage account with an online custodian. Store important items on external devices as another layer of preservation.
- Inventory your accounts and maintain an updated list of login information and passwords.
- Don't keep that list in a document on your computer titled “passwords.doc” or in your email account. Consider creating an online vault for such sensitive information. If it's too much to manage an updated list on your own, use one of the excellent password management tools that create, remember and fill in passwords automatically.
- Identify legacy contacts and inventory agents where allowed for your social media and professional accounts.
- Revisit your business shareholder or operating agreements. If you have a corporation or an entity like an LLC, write a succession plan that addresses business digital assets.
- Write a letter of instruction for your future caregivers and executors and say how you want your digital life handled. Should assets be transferred to a colleague, friend or family member? Are there accounts you'd prefer to be deleted or memorialized? Don't leave room for doubt; write it out and remove the guesswork.
- Be like my mom. Organization helps caregivers tremendously, and she was nothing if not organized. To this day, I am exceedingly grateful for that.
- But also, don't be like my mom. She used one password — “Ginbabe” (what can I say, she enjoyed a good martini!) — for 85 percent of her accounts and probably didn't know she was creating a major identity theft risk. Be sure to keep your passwords fresh and varied or use a password manager.
A little action goes a long way to managing, protecting and preserving your digital assets and information. Thoughtful digital planning is something that we all easily can do to create the road map and authority needed for our loved ones and caregivers to help us in life and beyond.