Most of what I like to write about here on the Clever Girl Organizing blog is about how to make positive differences in your spaces and systems and ultimately, your life. Sometimes, however, it’s important to discuss some of the darker side of life, and reiterate why organization is just as important, if not more so, in those times.
Managing your Digital Afterlife, or “Virtual Estate Planning”, has been a discussion popping up more and more with professional organizers (among other related professionals) over the past several years. The idea is simple: If the bill-payer in your home were to pass away or become incapacitated does someone else know how to handle the electronic accounts and all the digital world we engage in today?
Why is thinking about this important? The first reason is obvious: If someone passes or is incapacitated, life around them still goes on. Whether it’s paying the mortgage and the cell phone bill or contacting the insurance company, things must be addressed. The second reason is just as important: When someone is facing tragic illness or loss, anything that can be done to alleviate that person’s stress and confusion should be done. Knowing what you need to know can go a long way in helping to make an awful time more bearable. When a friend lost her husband suddenly, she realized she did not even know the password to get into her husband’s computer. You can imagine how helpless she must have felt, not being able to do anything like access his emails and contacts, find important paperwork, or even see the photos he had on his computer from their vacations.
Every day, our online and digital presence becomes more and more core to how we do business and interact with others. When the person-in-the-know is no longer in control of those accounts, it isn’t as simple as opening up a drawer in a desk and knowing what comes next. Some of it is straightforward and obvious:
- What bills need to be paid?
- What automatic payments or auto-renewals hit credit cards or bank accounts that need to be stopped?
- How do accounts get closed that no longer need to stay open?
But some aren’t necessarily the top of mind when someone passes away:
- What should happen to various social media accounts? Google has “inactive account manager”, Facebook has “Legacy Contact” and Twitter has a policy in place that family members can utilize. But you need to plan ahead for these, and what about the sites that don’t have policies at all? The website/publisher cnet.com recently did a nice round-up on some how-to steps for these sites.
- What about all the digital photos in a cloud account? What is owned and by whom? What can the family member access and obtain after a death?
- How about the iTunes library? Amazon Kindle Library? (Did you know you don’t own these, and can’t transfer them?)
- Email accounts… what happens there? What should happen to old emails? Who can access the account?
- Can someone even get into the laptop, the tablet, the phone?
A couple of years ago, I was inspired by a NAPO colleague at a talk she gave about this topic. She shared how she got started thinking of this, after working with a bank manager, trying to help one of his clients through this maze. I realized that, in my home, I’m the person in charge of all the accounts and paying the bills, and if something were to happen to me, my husband would be quite inconvenienced, if not completely blocked from being able to move forward with the important aspects of running our home. I instantly began the process of cataloging what our accounts were, what the passwords were, etc. It has evolved over time — it now is more robust in the information for all of our accounts – financial, communication, social media — but also includes things like “this payment comes out of bank automatically on the 15th” or “this auto-renews each May”.
This year, we made it even more comprehensive. My husband and I each have a list of “in the event of my death, please contact these people personally BEFORE posting on Facebook, because that’s not how I want them to hear about it” or “This is how I want my LinkedIn account handled, and what you should post to my professional network.” I’ve created the same kind of information for my husband about my business, with things like “this is how I”d like my website and Facebook page handled” and “This is how to find my current clients to let them know”.
And, the file is security protected and backed up, and my husband knows where to find it, and how to open it. While all that is great, and more than many do, I know I should be doing more. For instance, I should make sure our back-up executors know about this file and how to access it (getting right on that, after posting this; don’t worry).
Yes, this is dark. I know. But I’m hoping this is helping you stop and think about your life — if you passed away or were incapacitated, what would be the implications of that on those you live, in terms of this issue? If someone else passed and you were left with the responsibilities to go forward, would you have what YOU need? This isn’t just a topic for addressing with aging parents; this is something that can, as we know, impact anyone, at any time.
Want a good place to start gathering a list of items you should be tracking? I’m going to recommend the GYST Guide to Accounts, Passwords and Digital Details as a place to start brainstorming. (By the way, GYST, or “Get Your S___ Together” is a great website to help you think about organizing ALL the aspects of planning for death, not just digital details. If this is something that’s been on your mind, or, worse, not on your mind, spend some time with this site, rich in resources.) Another site, Safelyfiled.com, has a free pdf that can help you with a template and walks you through information to collect.
You’ll realize once you start this process that this isn’t something you do once and leave aside. It becomes something that requires some important upkeep:
1) Update the passwords if you’ve changed them (This is assuming you’re not using a password management system, like lastpass.)
2) Add new accounts when you open them
3) Make sure that the people who need to know where this information is know how to access it
Want to learn more or access some helpful resources? The Digital Beyond has a tremendous list of online companies in the market of managing post-death information and requests, and many help you store this information you’re gathering. It also maintains a list of states that have enacted laws related to digital estate management, proving that this space will only continue to get more attention and shift as we move forward in time. They also offer sample legal language for you to include in your own Power of Attorney or Wills to address control issues.