Preparing for a Cloudy day: Death, Passwords and other Assets

Not long ago a colleague forwarded a link to me for an article written by an Australian lawyer  The article is titled “Who Gets my Passwords When I Die” and it got me thinking about all the information I own that needs a password to access it. For example, e-mail accounts, online shopping sites, clubs, associations, networks and social media.  Then I realized, not only is my information hidden behind a password, but so are other assets.  For example, my photo albums are stored “in the cloud”, as are my music downloads and my Kindle e-books, some of which are on my reader, and some of which are stored on the Kindle cloud.  With the exception of my photos (digital) all of these things cost me money to obtain, and even the photos have a great deal of sentimental value for me.

So, assuming I still have these things when I die, and there isn’t some other technology we can’t even image right now to replace how we use and interact with such stuff by that time, who gets those assets?

If we were talking about all my physical stuff, like my shelves full of books, my CDs and DVDs or my photo albums, those I can leave to my husband or a friend through my Will.  In fact, if I am like many of my clients, those items would just automatically go to my husband or other heir as part of my “items of personal use” or as part of the residue of my estate, and I would not even specifically mention them.

If asked, I think most people would agree that their online “stuff” is also valuable, and that they would want their nearest and dearest to have those things in the event of death.  The problem is, unless you also leave your heir(s) the passwords, it is like leaving someone your treasures locked in a trunk.  The heir has them, no one else can get them, but no one, including the heir, can access them.  Actually, not having a password may be worse, as you can always hire a lock-smith to break a lock, but if the password is a good one and the heir doesn’t know it, it’s going to really hard to find.

The flip side of this issue is that passwords exist for a reason.  It may not be a really big deal if someone accesses your online photos (although it might) but someone cleaning out your bank accounts because they got your PIN may be a very big deal.  So how to ensure that your passwords are available upon your death, but not so long as your are alive and well?  That is not an easy question to answer.  One way of dealing with it, as Byron Cannon of Australia suggests in his article, it to make a list of passwords and kept it somewhere so your executor will have access, but no on else will.  The list could be kept in a safety deposit box with the Will.  However, that would mean each time you open a new account of some sort, or create a new password, you’ll be going to the bank to update your list.  That is not practical.

There are ways of storing your passwords online, which themselves require a password to access.  That doesn’t solve the problem completely, but it might help.  I know someone who gave a friend the first word of a two-part password, and her sister got the second word.  They would have to get together to access the “password vault”  Again it might seem excessive if all we are talking about is access to your Kindle account but if it’s your bank account, it may be warranted.

Who gets your passwords (and therefore access to your online stuff) will depend on a lot of things, including your level of trust, and whether the lucky person is also meant to look after you if you become incapable before you die.  If you think you might need some help with this, or any other matter concerning a new Will or an estate plan, please contact me.

About Maria Holman

I am a lawyer with over 28 years of experience in drawing up wills, trusts and estate plans, helping clients with probate and estate administrations and advising business owners and families about planning for the future. You can find me at Webster Hudson & Coombe LLP in Vancouver, BC
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