How to be prepared for death in a digital age

Death isn’t something most of us want to spend time thinking about, but it is inevitable for all of us, and we need to think about passing on our digital assets as well as our physical and financial ones. Most of us know that we should have a will and beneficiaries designated on investment accounts so that our assets are distributed to the right people, but many people don’t even take this first step. However, those of us who live and work online really need to go further, and think about how our loved ones should have access to our digital assets, accounts and information.

This is a very personal post for me, since I am dealing with the sudden death of my father, a fellow geek and web worker. He died without a will and without any way for us to access his password-protected computers. He did freelance work for clients as well as in-home computer repair for individuals. We have a stack of computers that we are pretty sure belong to other people, but they aren’t labeled and without access to his computer records, we can’t find the owners. We also know that he administered a bunch of systems for a big client, but we don’t know exactly who the contract was with, or who to contact to notify them. The computers in the house also control key household components, like the lights, and run the web servers for his personal and professional websites, so we’re trying to wait a bit before trying to hack into them to get access for fear of taking out critical household functionality. Would your family members would have similar difficulties if you died or became incapacitated in some way?

Here are a few things that you should consider:

  • Password management. Come up with some way for your family to access certain critical accounts or computers. I know one person who has an encrypted database with all of his passwords and the access information is in a sealed envelope in a safe. Other people use a password management system, like 1Password or LastPass, and make sure that a trusted family member has a way to access it. How you choose to do this depends on how you manage your passwords and how often you change them. I think most of us could find some creative way to make it easy for our family to get access to at least a few key accounts.
  • Technical documentation. Make sure that you have some kind of documentation about your technology in a place that people can access it without having access to one of your systems. This is especially important if you have systems tied together in a complicated manner. If you don’t have another tech-savvy family member, make sure that this documentation includes the names and phone numbers of a couple of trusted friends who can help out.
  • Client or work contacts. Keep a file or some kind of documentation about your clients in a place where other people can access it. At a minimum, you might want to include the name, email address and phone number of each current client, or your manager if you are a corporate worker, so that they can be contacted. I know that when I was running my solo consulting business, I kept everything on my password-protected computer, and it would have been very difficult for my family to contact my clients if anything happened to me.
  • Digital assets. Most of us have family photographs and other digital assets that our family will want to access later. Make sure that someone knows how to find those important photographs and other documents, and don’t rely on online photo storage services, which might be deleted at some point. If you keep most of your data on your own server (hosted or onsite), leave instructions for how to access and download anything that someone might want to save.

What else can we do to make this easier for our families? How prepared are you?

Photo used courtesy of Ken Mayer