Estate Planning in the Digital Age

One event remains certain for all of us, our inevitable end.  Planning for this eventuality is generally a good idea because you can help ensure that the people that survive you will be able to keep on keeping on.  This is why people have, for generations, written wills, powers of attorney, health care agent appointments, living wills or advance directives, and other legal documents.  All of these documents help to explain who is supposed to get what, and how your affairs should be closed out after your death.  The 21st century, however, has created a new set of problems with the rise of technology and the information age.  What happens to your online life when you die?  And how will your heirs access all of these things?

First off, computer security people have drilled into all of us to not share our passwords with others.  Besides having to change these passwords all of the time, users of most commercial information systems are used to having a password personal to them, which sometimes acts as a digital signature authorizing the commercial vendor to do certain things (for example, to trade stocks, post information, or to pay bills from a bank account).  In addition, security experts have also drilled that we should not write down our passwords, or attach them as post-it notes underneath our keyboards.  Furthermore, we have been taught to have different passwords for different services (so that, in the event of a password loss, the damage that might result would be limited to one or a few systems).  As a result, we probably keep a lot of passwords to a substantial number of systems, but we usually don’t tell anyone what these passwords are.  So what happens when we die?

For myself, I am just thinking about the computer passwords that I use on a regular basis: (a) one for my laptop, (b) one each for online banking at several different banks, (c) a passcode for my iPhone, (d) a passcode for my iPad, (e) passwords for blogs that I maintain online, (f) passwords for my web server, (g) passwords for online web sites that I use like,, iTunes.  I mean, I even had to create an account in order to update the software that programs my remote control for the T.V. at home!  I’m sure that if I sat down and thought about it, I would be able to write an even longer list.  Without help, I doubt my wife or any of my relatives would be able to access much, if any, of this.  Moreover, if I simply wrote out the whole list, I would have to periodically update my passwords for those systems that require that I regularly update (a growing percentage of my online accounts).

There do appear to be some subscription-based services available online today to help address this conundrum.  Dead Man’s Switch is one such service.  Another is called Death Switch.  There may be other services available.  Obviously, you would want to give some thought to what you are providing to the service, and what security is employed by the service that you sign up to use, given that you may end up leaving with it sensitive information to forward to people that you have designated.  I have not used either of these services.  If you are a user, please feel free to post comments to this post on your experience to date.

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Maryland technology attorney and college professor.

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