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Providing for your digital survivors

Social Media Key

By Joel Dresang

On a recent road trip, late at night, we veered into white-knuckle treacherous driving. We couldn’t always tell through the wintry mix of fat snow and icy rain where the highway was or where other vehicles lurked. Eventually, we—my wife, our youngest daughter and I—groped our way to an exit and found a motel.

Forecasters warned of even harsher travel for our drive home.

So, before our return, I telephoned my older sister. I said I didn’t want to freak her out, but in case something happened, I wanted her to let our older daughters know how to access my online accounts.

Yes, we have made provisions for our three daughters to handle our financial affairs if we become incapacitated and when we pass away. We have a will. We have arranged for powers of attorney and health care. We have discussed our wishes with them and have left written instructions where they know to find them.

But more than ever, our lives are entangled in desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. I count 94 website accounts I have set up to do everything from reserve library books to move our money.

I have passcodes, secure links, usernames, passwords, multifactor authentications and occasionally security questions to gain access to most of our accounts for banking, borrowing, investing and spending.

Consider a password manager
An online tool that has become indispensable to me personally is an encrypted, cloud-based password manager. It has helped me organize sites that I frequent, and it allows me to create, store, recall and update complex passwords for each site. All I have to remember is one master password.
Everything you need to know about password managers, from Consumer Reports
Password managers have a security flaw. But you should still use one, from The Washington Post
How to be safer online: Passwords, a Money Talk Video with Jason Scuglik

Of course, we have so many digital hoops to jump through to make it harder for cyber thieves to filch our finances. But those same hurdles make it more difficult when the time comes to cede control to those we trust.

The durable power of attorney affords the individuals we designate a lot of authority. Still, online access will ease their way. I don’t want to leave a lot of connections dangling after I’m gone. My legacy shouldn’t include loose ends.

Our survivors don’t deserve to have to puzzle over how to unlock my computer and figure out how to crack the various codes to get at our family’s assets online. I shouldn’t have to phone my sister and freak her out with emergency instructions.

To streamline the process, I’m doing the same thing many of us talk about doing when dealing with our physical belongings: Sorting through everything, considering options and leaving written instructions for our successors to follow.

1.List. Make an inventory of all your devices, email accounts, financial accounts and social media accounts. List where each item is located. Include access information, including pass code, password, personal identification number (PIN) and answers to security questions. Include a list of recurring payments made automatically from your accounts such as monthly subscriptions and utility bills.

Tip: Take time to compile this list. Don’t expect to do it all in one sitting. Invariably, you’ll remember some rarely used account that you’ll want to include.

2.Determine. Imagine what you want done with each account if you’re incapacitated and what you want done when you die. Write it down. Spell it out. For my part, I can’t imagine why I’d want to keep a presence on LinkedIn if I’m no longer active, so I’m leaving instructions to close my account.

3.Designate. Decide who’s in charge of handling your digital affairs. We’re including that among the tasks for those we’ve delegated power of attorney when we can’t take of each other. We trust their judgment.

4.Secure. Your online inventory would be a Holy Grail for identity thieves, so be careful where you put it. We’re filing a printed copy with other end-of-life papers we’ve secreted away. We’ll include instructions to access a cloud-based password manager I use, which should ease entry into our accounts. The password manager also made it much easier for me to make the list in Step 1.

Note: Don’t put passwords in your will. For the sake of security, you should be changing passwords much more frequently than you alter your will. Also, wills can become public documents through the court system, in which case, you risk letting everyone know how to get into your accounts.

5.Share. Tell the people you have designated as your digital executors that you have designated them as digital executors. Explain what that means and that you are leaving instructions and how they can expect to find them when the time comes.

6.Update. Revisit your inventory every six months or so—even better, every time you add or close an online account or change a password. Otherwise, you’ll be like my friend who gave me a key to his place and then changed the lock. And your survivors will be like me, wondering how to get in.

As with organizing your tangible stuff, sorting through your digital affairs provides an opportunity to cull accounts you no longer find useful. I remembered an old email account I last used three years ago. It’s high time I deactivate it and leave one less worry for those who are left to clean up after me.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

Learn more
5 tips for naming beneficiaries, a Money Talk Video with Mike Hoelzl
Protect your wealth from cyber scams, by Lisa Lewitzke
Keeping Your Account Secure: Tips for Protecting Your Financial Information, from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority

(initially posted April 4, 2019)

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