Your mother has just entered hospice care and is declining quickly. Suddenly there are a million questions you are supposed to have asked in advance. Most of them involve money, beloved objects or family history, but in the digital age, there are less tangible assets we almost never stop to think about.
As we plan for inheriting the house and family keepsakes, we must include our digital lives as well. And, as we help our parents plan, we need to remember their digital presence. Here’s a look at some of the things at stake:
Risk 1: Online Bills
After her mother was hospitalized for a heart attack, Cara spent every moment she could at her bedside. When she returned home the night that her mother died, she found that the electricity was shut off. Although Cara was able to find her mother’s log-in for online bill payment on her computer, she didn’t have the password to access the account.
Having all log-ins and passwords for financial accounts in one secure place would have helped. So how do you do that?
First, of course, is simply to keep a handwritten list, stored somewhere safe or with someone you trust, and inform your next of kin where it is. Or you can use an online password protection company.
C-Net lists more than 700 password managers. Among the most widely used is 1Password, which, for a fee, can help you not only create strong passwords, but remember and restore them. Several free sites, including PasswordSafe and LastPass, provide similar services.
Risk 2: Lost data
For years, Judy served as business manager for her father’s art gallery, sharing access to the computer where his drawings as well as client contacts were stored. A year after his death, she realized that simple software updates can make previous versions of electronic treasures obsolete, and set out to create hard copies of files she wanted to save.
Going beyond password protection, you should also think about how you’ll want your accounts managed once you’re no longer able to do so.
Google Inactive Account Manager allows you to choose a trusted contact who will be notified when your account has been inactive after a specified length of time and who can also be given access to the Google accounts you choose.
For all other accounts, you might want to look into a digital “vault,” a service such as Legacy Locker, AssetLock, Cirrus Legacy or SecureSafe that allows you to assign beneficiaries for each of your online accounts and safely store other aspects of your online presence.
While such sites can help you focus on digital asset preservation, it’s important to remember that their services may conflict with terms of service, click-through agreements, or relevant state and federal laws.
Evan Carroll and John Romano’s book Your Digital Afterlife and their website ( yourdigitalafter.com) offer strategies worth exploring. Make sure that whatever tool you choose for digital estate planning is logical, easy to use and most importantly, something you share with others.
Risk 3: Losing Control of Your Legacy
Steve found out about his mother’s Facebook account several weeks after her death. For decades their relationship had been strained, and when she entered hospice care, he reluctantly agreed to move her into his home. Small moments of reconciliation occurred, but learning of the Facebook account made him realize there might be a lot he did not know.
Deep relief and quiet joy filled him as he read her public status updates expressing gratitude for her son’s sacrifices for her. But what if he had discovered hurtful or confusing information? She would not have been there to confront, explain or repair the relationship.
Prompted by this experience, Steve and his wife have committed to inventorying their digital assets to spare their own children anxiety. They are also conscious of how others might react to what they post, and understand that if something happens to them, the person managing their estates will need access to the good, the bad and the ugly in their online lives.
Thinking about illness, death and dying is something no one wants to do, and like Cara, Judy and Steve, family caregivers will most likely be the ones to sort through a digital legacy with or without a conversation.
Planning for our digital assets can be a gift to ourselves and to those who grieve us, reducing the burden they will carry as they sort through our past and tell our story. Our digital assets hold tremendous value for those who will find comfort and meaning from our cloud-based legacy.
Naomi Cahn is a law professor at George Washington University. Amy Ziettlow is an ordained Lutheran pastor and an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values where she leads a study of Gen X caregiving and grieving called “Homeward Bound: Aging, Death and Dying in an Era of High Family Fragmentation.”