A true story, reported by Reuters on February 17, 2012:
Karin Prangley, a 33-year-old Chicago estate planning attorney, attempted to guess her father-in-law's password to gain access to his business computer after he suffered a debilitating stroke several years ago at age 62. None of them worked.
“At the time he owned a building supply company, and he ran most of the business through his e-mail account,” Prangley says. “But he hadn't left his password with anyone, so the family had no way of accessing the contents. We didn't know which orders had been filled, what was coming in, who the business owed money to, or who to bill.”
Ms. Prangley contacted the e-mail service provider for her father’s account and explained the situation. Citing privacy concerns, the company said they would require a court order to release her father’s password. “As an attorney, I knew that takes at least a month,” Prangley says. “The business couldn't wait that long.” Unable to access the company’s financial information, the family eventually decided to close the business.
This incident illustrates one of the emerging issues in the brave new world of “digital estate planning.” As more of our financial and personal lives are archived online, the challenge of both protecting and providing access increases. If your family, loved ones, business associates and financial advisors can’t retrieve it, your digital cloud of data – financial records, photos, music collections, family documents – may vaporize. As a security programmer said, “One of the most critical last words you could say might just be your password.”
Preparing for a Digital Afterlife
Digital storage has many advantages. The format is paperless, accessible at any time from a multitude of devices, and very hard to misplace or destroy. But in order for digital storage to be secure, it requires passwords. Yet documenting a password – on a piece of paper, in another computer file – compromises its security. So how do you maintain security, yet allow appropriate parties access in the event you are incapacitated or deceased? The answers run the gamut from old-fashioned low-tech procedures to sophisticated online services.
The Master Password. James Lamm, a Minnesota attorney specializing in digital estate plans, recommends this modification to having a password list: Prepare a written document containing a single master password, and store it in a secure location. This master password can be used to open a digital property list stored on a computer or other electronic device, which provides instructions for all other online accounts. This eliminates the need for constantly updating a physical document, and also adds a layer of security, because access requires both the paper document and the electronic device.
Electronic “Vault”. Some digital financial organization systems include a person’s important financial information and accounts, and also may offer electronic storage options for passwords, and copies of important documents and photos.
Internet Security Services. These services are still in their infancy, so changes are likely as the businesses mature. But in a variety of ways, these online services make it possible for an individual to pre-authorize the transfer of passwords and other digital access privileges to designated parties upon proof that a death or disability has occurred. Some examples:
- For a modest fee, the service allows a user to store an unlimited number of digital assets (usernames and passwords, typically) with prepared “letters of instruction” for delivery to beneficiaries after one’s passing. When death occurs, someone notifies the company. After verifying the demise of the account holder, the company distributes the letters of instruction, which provide account information, passwords, and access instructions.
- Another online company uses e-mail to determine if you are dead, or at least critically disabled. The company sends the account holder emails at pre-arranged intervals, according to a schedule of the customer’s choosing. If the account holder does not respond, the service sends e-mails (prepared by the account holder) to designated persons, beginning the process of verifying the account holder’s status, and if necessary, transferring authorization to designated heirs.
As digital storage increases, digital access will become more important – and probably more sophisticated. If you store data in the digital clouds, make sure you provide a way for the right people to find it.