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Digital Legacy – Or Digital Mess – What Will You Leave Your Loved Ones?

Category: Estate Planning

August 31, 2016 — Consider this unpleasant scenario: You go to bed tonight and don’t wake up. Instead, you go on to your greater reward, leaving a saddened spouse, family, and friends. They, on the other hand, are about to find out how well you prepared for this event. While not fun to think about, this is not an “if” it happens situation, it is only “when”.

Not so long ago your heirs would face many unpleasant chores as a result of your untimely death, but at least the tasks were relatively straightforward. Assets could generally be traced by looking in file folders, safe deposit boxes, and various spots around the house. Statements would eventually come in the mail, alerting your survivors to the existence of various accounts. Now in the digital age, your executor or surviving spouse face the same tasks, only they tend to be much more difficult. That is mainly because so many of your assets and accounts only exist online. How will they find out what accounts exist, and then how on earth will they get access?

Let’s assume that your spouse and you had one or two banking accounts, some shared credit cards, and some investment and 401(k) accounts. The end of the month is approaching, and your spouse has $100 in cash in her purse and $1500 in the checking. He or she can probably get by with most purchases by using the credit cards. But what arrangements did you make (or not make) to pay impending bills like mortgages, credit card payments, utilities, HOA dues, taxes, etc.? If you had separate checking accounts, how will your spouse get access? If it is a joint account, how much is in there and what were you doing about transferring money into it? How much needed to come in and from which accounts? If she can’t get access to the accounts you were transferring money from, checks and automatic payments in your main checking account will start bouncing, and services will be cut off. Without meaning to, you will have caused a huge mess and worry.

Chances are the only way for him to find out is to go online to each account and look around. But there could be some serious obstacles to that – where are those accounts, and how many are there she doesn’t know about. It is highly possible you have assets that your heirs will never find out about. And even if you left a list of accounts, what are the user names and passwords? Even worse, what if your executor doesn’t know the password to: 1) your computer, and 2) your email? Important stuff is on your computer, not to mention photos and other records, and if she can’t access it life is going to be hard.

Social media
Although not as serious as the financial side of things, what will happen if your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts keep going along assuming you are living. Facebook has a “Memorial” status that keeps your page alive so it can viewed and memorial messages posted. How about your email account or cell phone – how many people or organizations will be trying to reach you for important (or not so critical) reasons – and she won’t know it.

What to do
Every person needs to have a detailed and up to date list of all your digital assets – along with user names and passwords. Those include:
– Bank accounts
– Brokerage
– 401(k) and IRAs
– Online billing accounts (utilities, etc)
– Mortgages/loans
– Social media
– Email
– Cell phone
– Etc

Many people keep a spreadsheet, either on paper or a computer with the info on all these accounts. Looseleaf notebooks can be a good option. The problem is much of the info is probably out of date, not updated for months or years at a time. Some accounts will have been closed, others too new to get added. A better way is to use one of the inexpensive password manager programs like Roboform, Lastpass, or Dashlane. These programs not only keep track and update along the way, they will generate strong passwords and help you avoid the unsafe habit same of using the same or similiar passwords everywhere.

Wherever you keep the data, on a thumb drive, looseleaf notebook, in a drawer, or password manager, you have to let your spouse and executor know where that info is – and if it needs one, what the password is!

For further reading:
Plan Your Digital Legacy, and Update it Often
Now That You’re Retired: 10 Things You Must Do
Don’t Die Without a Will – Please!

Comments? How are you handling your digital legacy? What have you done to insure that your loved ones and executor don’t face an impenetrable thicket finding out what you own, and getting access to it to pay bills and expenses? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section below.

Posted by Admin on August 30th, 2016


  1. How about offering a print button for these articles.


    Editor’s note: The best way to print these articles is to go to “File” at the top left of your browser window. Select “Print”. At the bottom of the next little print window there should be an option for “PDF”. Open that option up, and then choose “Save as PDF”. Once you have that PDF saved on your computer, open it up and print it out. You should have the option to delete some pages in case it saved more than you want. You can of course skip the whole PDF part of this and print straight out, but the pdf option is usually cleaner.

    by bob — August 31, 2016

  2. My husband recently passed away, leaving me as the only person who knows about all my financial and legal dealings. I have now created an Excel file, password protected, that I have emailed to my brother. (Tip: Send the password separately, and preferably in a different way, like in a text.)
    The file has tabs for bill paying information, bank/investment information, “where stuff is,” and who to contact in case of my death. My plan is to update it as needed, with a reminder to myself quarterly to check it. I’m pretty organized, so I think keeping it up to date will not be too big of an issue. I didn’t want to just use a password keeper, because I wanted to include additional information.

    by Kathy Hunter — August 31, 2016

  3. I am sooooooo glad you presented this issue!
    I am single and live alone. After dealing with my demented (really!) parent and her demise, I realized that I needed an executor and a living will with MDPOA. I have created a living trust, and all of my assets are in that trust. But the very helpful lawyer had no suggestions or thoughts about the digital footprint I left behind. I do all of my transactions on-line. My bills are all on auto-pay from my bank. What happens when the money doesn’t continue to come in? It could get very messy.

    I also live half a country away from family, so no one will be here to care for my cats. I need to set up a “first responder” system for my demise that will have the access info and cat care knowledge and who can notify my family. And I need to maintain a paper and backup thumb drive access to my various digital accounts. I plan on reviewing it every three months. Since I can’t remember anything anymore, I will put the review on my calendar!

    I look forward to hearing other comments on this issue.

    by Lulu — August 31, 2016

  4. Can some others who have organized their accounts, passwords, etc describe their system. I would rather not use excel due to my husbands limited knowledge of using computer programs and other electronic gizmo’s. He is a ‘hard copy’ type of guy. I would be interested in some kind of a book. Maybe even a 3 ring binder with tabs from A-Z where I can add sheets of paper in or take them out as things need to be updated.

    by Louise — September 1, 2016

  5. This has become a hot topic in my office. We’re all waking up to the need to have a way of managing our electronic footprints and passwords, auto pay accounts, etc. We might not have time to slowly transfer info and make changes. I didn’t want to put the info in an electronic file, so I purchased a little blank book and started writing down passwords in it. It’s become a mess as things get updated. It’s certainly not alphabetical anymore, as I had originally intended. The book also has a list of all bank accounts and credit cards. I kept the book with my will in a safe, and my kids have the safe’s code.

    My Dad kept his passwords on a computer printout tacked to a bulletin board next to his computer. NOT a good idea, since we discovered his accounts were inspected by curious family members after he was hospitalized suddenly. We’re lucky they were just curious, and that it wasn’t someone else with nefarious intent.

    I like the idea of a 3-ring binder, with pages that can be updated.

    by Kate — September 1, 2016

  6. I also have a notebook that has become a disaster and it has no way to remove sheets of paper to update anything. I can deal with it but no one on earth could figure it out! LOL! It is time to update this mess. I had taped in pages from bills too for account numbers like for our oil company, electric company, some credit cards. Lots of things but we have changed cable companies several times so that is out of date amongst many other things.

    This is interesting:

    by Louise — September 1, 2016

  7. For those looking for an organizer for important documents, a while ago I purchased a kit called “If Something Happens to Me” by Joe Hearn. It, and similar products, are available on Amazon. It included a workbook and fill-in forms for your information. There was also a bright lime green accordion file, indexed by subject matter, to keep everything in. The color would make it easy to find when it was needed. While this is mainly for paper documents, after reading this article, I will be sure to include information in the file on my electronic life as well.

    by LS — September 1, 2016

  8. This article is good timing. We just had a family member pass who had not retired yet, and this needed to be addressed. We can not get in his laptop and have had to go through past bills, bank receipts, paystubs, etc to make heads and tails of everything. With a print out from the bank we were able to track online payments of the past year. Still a hard copy needs to be available so family or friends are not stressed by lack of knowledge of the decease’s financial situation. There should be a “directional” with any funeral arrangements, as this was the first thing we looked to find.

    by DeyErmand — September 2, 2016

  9. This is an important issue that many people just don’t address since it’s no fun. I’ve been trying to get my own house in order since my wife passed. It will make things much simpler for the kids.

    My attorney is the focal point. He has all of my end-of-life stuff – will, trust, POAs, etc. Other original documents – titles, deeds, policies, birth cert, DD214, etc – are in a safe deposit box which attorney can access upon my death. The physical stuff is pretty easy, but the devil is in the details.

    I have a set of electronic documents called the “Dead Dad Diaries.” The Diaries are kept on a cloud service that’s accessible by the attorney. They contain the nitty gritty stuff that’s important, but not always easy to find, and can change frequently. That includes stuff like dog’s vet records, auto-pays and digital assets, prepaid stuff (like home warranty), keypad code to get into garage/house, names of neighbors, post office box info, etc. Whenever I think of something that might be important I add it to the DDD. I keep all online passwords, account info, passport info, etc in a password manager, also on the cloud. (I use one called Dashlane – there are many others.) The master password to the PW manager is in the DDD.

    DDD also include contact info for key outsiders who know what’s going on in their areas – banker, broker, insurance agent, handyman & housekeeper I’ve used occasionally, everybody like that.

    There’s also a section for “final wishes” for stuff that’s not specifically listed in the will. It covers things like what to do with cremains; which thrift shop to send stuff to; give fly rod to Charlie; etc.

    This is all a work in progress, but that’s the way it should be. Every list is accurate only at the point of time it’s created – stuff changes really often. Give someone you trust (attorney in my case) access to the always-updated Dead Dad Diaries and save the kids a lot of guessing and mistakes.

    by Graybuck — September 3, 2016

  10. Graybuck: It seems overwhelming, but that’s exactly what I am going to start for my own kids. Thank you for posting. You make excellent additional suggestions. This list doesn’t just need to include our electronic footprints ( a woman I knew has a Facebook and LinkedIn account several years after dying, since no one took them down), but also the stuff like the vet records, security, cleaning or yard services, etc. With each generation, our lives get more complex.

    by Kate — September 4, 2016

  11. I use an old fashioned Rolodex to keep track of my logins and passwords. The cards can easily be removed or added as needed. I often use pencil so that I can update passwords, if needed. I also add a date to the card, along with dating any revisions.

    You can also use a standard address book with A-Z tabs, or they do have password books that are similar to address books but have specific entries for login/usernames and passwords.

    The books are easier to lock up in a safe place than the rolodex, if privacy is desired.

    by Cathy — September 4, 2016

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