Last December, a Canadian businessman named Gerald Cotton died suddenly while travelling in India. Unfortunately for clients of Cotton’s cybercurrency exchange, who had entrusted him with $190 million worth of bitcoin, Cotton had neglected to share any of the passwords necessary to gain access to his online business with anyone, so the company was forced to file for bankruptcy.
“I do not know the password or recovery key,” Cotton’s wife said in an affidavit. “Despite repeated and diligent searches, I have not been able to find them written down anywhere.”
While you probably don’t have so much money at stake, odds are you do have multiple email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, shopping accounts at Amazon and other online stores, online photos and purchased music, as well as a potentially large social media presence.
A secondary will
Especially if you follow best practices for passwords, others may not be able to easily gain access to your accounts after you’re gone.
So it’s becoming increasingly important for you to make sure that your digital assets, as well as your earthly possessions, are properly managed after you die.
“A huge part of everything we do is online,” says Shawn Blanc, a website developer and author based in Kansas City. “There is just a lot of information where if you don’t know the passwords, or don’t know where to look, then you wouldn’t be able to find it.”
Some are calling it a digital will to complement their actual last will and testament.
Giving loved ones access
There are really two parts to a digital will: keeping an inventory of all your online accounts and passwords, and then giving access to a trusted person such as a partner or a loved one.
Why not simply share passwords to your online accounts? Because
that may violate the terms of service of the online service and even break federal data laws, says John C. Martin, an estate lawyer in Menlo Park, Calif.
“It seems counterintuitive, because they’ve got this online account and their loved ones can seamlessly can go in and start accessing the account,” he says. “But that would be a mistake.”
How to make a digital will
The inventory part of your will can be as simple as a note on your computer where you list all of your online accounts and other important digital information.
Blanc uses a note, and has written a handy guide on how to do it. He stores the note in a password manager, an app called 1Password, which is an encrypted piece of software on his computer.
Blanc’s wife only needs to remember one master password to open the 1Password account, and Blanc’s note lays out all of his existing online account information. She can then use the password manager to access bank accounts, where she has joint signature with Blanc, or pass the information to his lawyer.
Because Blanc wisely changes his account passwords frequently, by using a password manager he doesn’t have to keep updating his digital will with the new information– the changes are automatically stored.
Martin says that it’s a good idea to include mention of digital assets in your real will or durable power of attorney, so that there is a legal basis for a loved one to access your account. He notes that 36 states have passed digital access laws requiring the custodian of digital content to provide access to an executor or someone named in a power of attorney even if the passwords are lost.
“You don’t have to list all of your accounts and can give your trustee or agent access to all online accounts, listservs and social media in your will,” Martin said.
Your social media accounts
You may have photos of children and grandchildren you want preserved online, not to mention large music collections you have paid for.
If possible, grant access to other family members. Apple, for example, allows family accounts that give access to several family members so sharing those passwords should be no problem.
What about social media? When it comes to Twitter and Instagram, you’ll need to tell your heirs what you want to happen on your accounts. Blanc says he would like his followers to know when he is “not here anymore.” He hopes the body on his online work can be preserved for future generations.
For Facebook, you can designate a person known as a legacy contact, who has authority to either close your Facebook account –or create a “remembering page” to note your passing.