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Preparing for the Unthinkable: A Brief Guide to Digital Legacy Planning

The sudden death of our friend and Take Control author Charles Edge emphasized how terrible things can happen to anyone at any time (see “Take Control Author Charles Edge Dies,” 22 April 2024). Those later on in life are usually more aware of their mortality and plan for it, but for younger people, it’s hard to contemplate the possibility of incapacitation or death, whether due to an accident or just bad luck.

I don’t know what Charles may or may not have done in this regard, although he wrote about the topic three days before he died from a cerebral aneurysm. Since then, Tonya and I have been thinking more about what would happen if one of us were to be incapacitated or die. We both know a lot about the other’s digital setup, but is it enough? We’ve come up with a list of items that we need to share with the other so they could take over, and we hope it’s useful for you, too.

The most comprehensive reference for this sort of planning is Joe Kissell’s ebook, Take Control of Your Digital Legacy. He wrote the first edition back in 2017 when we were still running Take Control, and he published a second edition in February 2024 that brings it up to date in myriad ways. If you want to do more than the basics—and I highly recommend that you do—read Take Control of Your Digital Legacy and think about the many aspects of your digital life that will help your spouse, partner, or child to get through the early days of not having you around.

Identify Your Trusted People

First, figure out who will need to take the reins when you’re incapacitated or dead—I’ll refer to that person as your steward. For those in a couple, one member will likely take the role of steward for the other, but if both die, there needs to be a backup.

You may also need other people in various roles: a healthcare proxy, someone with power of attorney, the executor of your will, the guardian of your minor children, or a trustee. I’m far from an expert on this topic (we’re about to update our woefully outdated will from 22 years ago), so get advice from a lawyer or estate planning professional.

Whoever you choose, talk to these people soon to make sure they’re willing to help and know what’s involved. Such discussions can be tremendously difficult, but just think how much more difficult it will be for them if they’re thrust into such a position without having had the talk. That’s doubly true if your preferred steward isn’t all that technically adept.

Create Digital Legacy Information

If you’re incapacitated or dead, your steward will need to work with healthcare professionals, organizations with which you do business, government agencies, and much more. To ease that process, I recommend building a set of digital legacy information they can turn to whenever some question or problem arises. For instance, they might need to share your health insurance information if you’re admitted to a hospital, notify family members they’ve never met, pay your mortgage, and more. From what I’ve heard from those who have gone through this, there’s always more.

Here are some items that I encourage you to assemble and ensure that your steward can access in the event of an emergency:

  • Login passwords/passcodes: It’s essential that your steward be able to get into your Mac, iPhone, and iPad to access other information, so make sure that they either know your login passwords and passcodes or can look them up in a secure location. Don’t assume that Face ID or Touch ID is sufficient—devices with biometric authentication still require their password or passcode regularly.
  • Password manager: I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is that you use a password manager for all your online accounts. By collecting everything in one place, a single master password gives your steward instant access. Although password-sharing setups like 1Password for Families and Apple’s Shared Family Group work well for everyday use, sharing the master password ensures your steward can access accounts that may not be shared.
  • Medical information: Your steward will likely need your health insurance information if you’re admitted to a hospital in an emergency situation. A short list of current medications, allergies, and surgical histories may also be helpful, especially if you have severe allergies to common medications or must take certain medications regularly.
  • Estate planning documents: An estate planning professional should help here, but your steward will likely need to access documents that specify your healthcare directives and power of attorney, along with your will, guardianship documents, trusts, and so on. Make sure to communicate the location—online or offline—of those documents.
  • Communication plan: A stressful aspect of someone dying is communicating their passing to family, friends, and community members. Develop a list of people who should be contacted quickly. They can then be asked to spread the word further to your relatives, employer or clients, friends, and community groups.
  • Financial affairs: Create a document that lists your bank accounts, investment accounts and assets, and insurance policies. For each, include an account number if appropriate, and either a link to the website (the login credentials should be in your password manager) or a description of the location of physical documents (“the bottom drawer of the wooden filing cabinet, in an Insurance Policies folder”). Add any notes that might help your steward, such as contact information for accountants or lawyers.
  • How to be me: Joe Kissell suggests this item in Take Control of Your Digital Legacy, and I think it’s brilliant. The goal is to create a document that briefly explains what you do—think of it as training someone to take over from you. It could include regular tasks, details about home or car maintenance, important financial tasks like paying property taxes, and notes on how to deal with your technology. If you are your household’s IT person, tech notes may need to include how the network is set up, how the home automation system works, how backups work, and how to reboot the router. Generating such a document from scratch might be challenging, but if you start now and add tasks as you perform or remember them, it will become a valuable resource over time. You may want to organize it chronologically, listing key actions for each month.

One final note. Apple’s Legacy Contact system for sharing Apple data in the event of your death is worth setting up because it ensures your account won’t be deleted for 3 years, but as long as you trust your steward sufficiently, providing full access gives more flexibility. Google provides an Inactive Account Manager you can configure to share select data with specific people if your account goes inactive, but that will take at least three months.

Other Decisions to Consider

My goal so far has been to lay out the information your steward will need to take care of you and manage your affairs in the immediate aftermath of your being incapacitated or dying. As horrible and stressful as that will be (but less so if you’ve left them good information), there’s vastly more work that comes from winding down your life. You can make it easier for them by thinking ahead and documenting your wishes in these areas:

  • Email: How do you want your steward to respond to incoming email messages from individuals, businesses, and mailing lists? What should happen to all your saved email in the long run?
  • Chat: How should your steward respond to incoming chats in Messages, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and so on?
  • Social media: If you use social media, it’s a good idea to instruct your steward to post a final farewell so anyone looking you up will know what happened. Consider it an opportunity to have the last word. Some social media services allow accounts to be archived so they remain online but limit access, so if that’s desirable, let your steward know. Or just have them delete your accounts.
  • Photos and videos: Dealing with thousands—or tens of thousands—of photos and videos is going to be a ton of work for your family. If you have the time, create albums of photos and videos you’d like to share with specific family members.
  • Other data: It’s hard to know what additional documents you might have or what you want to have happen to them. If you have data that should be shared, be sure to leave some high-level instructions about what it is, where on your drive it can be found, and who should get it.

Again, this article is far from comprehensive—my goal is to help you start thinking about these issues. Take Control of Your Digital Legacy addresses additional topics and provides a great deal more advice. I also encourage those of you who have already had to serve as stewards to share anything you learned in the comments.

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Comments About Preparing for the Unthinkable: A Brief Guide to Digital Legacy Planning

Notable Replies

  1. Adam, many thanks for this! Because of your work and Joe Kissells’ I’m much better prepared! The two of you have performed a real service— all your readers are greatful!

  2. It’s a good idea to have a technically savvy friend lined up, to help your heirs/executor handle the computer stuff. A friend has my passwords and a quick tour through my digital archives, Just In Case.

  3. Excellent job, Adam. I am 87 years old, and have been a widow for nearly 4 years. My main concern is that things be as easy as possible for my two daughters when I die.

    I suggest that your readers write their obituaries.

    My financial affairs are taken care of, but, I have a house full of useful possessions, which my daughters will inherit. For the house (and other things) I’m making good use of the cloud in giving information to my daughters, dictating into Pages. When I begin a document I date and title it; for example, “family room.” I dictate on my iPad as things come to mind, and do major editing later on my iMac. These are living documents, and I give a link to my two daughters as I start each document. I allow them to edit some documents, read only or share others. Be sure to update the date when you edit.

    (I can’t find how to make Pages insert an automatically updated date, and would really appreciate guidance on this. “Insert date” is always dim.)

    There are many things that my family want to know about, but other things are important only to a realtor or the next owner when my house is sold one day. We built our home 41 years ago and made a later addition. There is much information that the future owner would find useful and important. Separate documents for this.

    I’m able to make good use of my iMac and other devices in this ongoing project, as I imagine anyone reading this blog would be.

    My attorney says that I still ought to keep hard copies of all my cloud-stored documents.

  4. Great advice, Virginia, thank you! It sounds like you’re very much on top of this.

    I hadn’t seen the term before Joe used it in the book, but apparently writing your own obit is called an autobituary. I like the idea—I think I’ll do a better job than almost anyone. :slight_smile:

  5. Incidentally, Adam, I wrote it in the first person. And thanks for the addition to my vocabulary. :blush:

  6. I am not certain if this information is in the latest version of the Take Control book, but I think it would be important to try as best as possible to be (digitally) forgotten once you are dead. For example it would be best to delete as many online accounts as possible.

  7. I hadn’t heard about the Apple Legacy setting. But when I looked at it just now it said:

    Starting in iOS 15.2, iPadOS 15.2, and macOS 12.1, you can add a Legacy Contact for your Apple ID. Adding a Legacy Contact is the easiest, most secure way to give someone you trust access to the data stored in your Apple account after your death. The data may include photos, messages, notes, files, apps you’ve downloaded, device backups, and more. Certain information, like movies, music, books, or subscriptions you purchased with your Apple ID, and data stored in your Keychain—like payment information, passwords, and passkeys—can’t be accessed by your Legacy Contact.

    What about getting important things like payment info and passwords to your legacy contact?

    I was thinking of things like accounts I host for clients who will need a way of continuing, for example.

  8. After my husband died, the funeral home notified the SSA, a standard practice.

    Evidently the SSA notified my husband’s pension and annuity funds, which paid him in advance each month. Although these funds were to continue to me in full force at his death, the organizations immediately contacted me, requiring that I return the regular payments that were deposited just two days after his death. The old accounts in his name had to be closed and new ones opened in my name. This took 1-2 months. Fortunately, we had a joint cash management account so I wasn’t destitute.

    I’m a widow now and the sole owner of that cash management account, which my daughters will inherit. My banker tells me that at my death the account will be automatically frozen. Consequently, I’ve opened a joint bank account with a daughter with sufficient funds for burial expenses and upkeep of my house until it’s sold.

  9. Very useful points Virginia. I should check for my mother that my sister who she lives with has a similar arrangement.

  10. That’s true for some people but not for others. Take Control of Your Digital Legacy does talk about deleting accounts.

    Apple’s Legacy Contact is focused on the content within your Apple account. It’s conceivable that you could have stored client passwords and other information there, but frankly, it would seem better to have a disaster planning document for your business that would contain this information and name someone who could take over the clients technically.

  11. That’s one approach, but I would suggest you and your daughter meet with an estate planning attorney. There are many things you can do to avoid this (and the probate courts), but since I don’t know your specific situation and am not a lawyer, I won’t make specific suggestions here.

    And I would give this advice to everybody - young and old alike.

    Back when I was single, I didn’t think about it because I had no dependents and so nobody would be financially impacted by my death. But that was incorrect reasoning - because you can become incapacitated and may be unable to make decisions. Today, I have an estate plan that includes a family trust, an advance medical directive and a durable power of attorney in order to (hopefully) cover all possibilities.

    But since laws vary from location to location, this isn’t something you want to do on your own. Hence the advice to see an estate planning attorney who can draw up whatever papers you need in order to have your wishes enforced.

  12. yes, I was widowed just over a year ago, and although the bank accounts were held in trust and therefor not frozen, the bank immediately deleted all the online banking bill recipients, because we had used my husband’s login to pay the bills. I had to recreate the entire list and re-enter the information under my own login. Since one never knows which person of a pair would unexpectedly perish, one has to keep a list of all online banking recipients (i.e. every company you pay online via the bank) so that someone can recreate it if it’s the other person. Even joint accounts don’t get around that one

  13. David, I appreciate your suggestions; they are valid and important. I’ve mentioned only a few things about my situation, those I felt might be useful to others. My attorney and my accountant and I have worked together and I believe my situation is under control. I have the necessary documents.
    One unexpected nuisance: I’m not going to give either daughter joint ownership of my car because if I’m at fault in an accident my daughter could be sued. That information comes from my insurance agent. I’ve never been at fault in an accident, but there’s always a first time.

  14. Reading this made me think of the long list of subscriptions and automatic payments that would need to be cancelled. I guess the safest thing would be to make sure all the accounts/cards that automatically get billed are closed. But you’d still need to make sure payment info is updated for crucial payments (e.g. the password manager and mortgage). It would be a challenge for me to come up with a complete list.

  15. You can do this, Steve. Bit by bit. (Although byte by byte would be faster.) :smirk: Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back.

  16. When we moved into the RV for full time life in 2012 we started a list of every place that auto debited either our credit card or checking account so when the inevitable card fraud happened (3 times in 8 years)…we could quickly change all of those. And literally everything was charged to a single card for both points and bill consolidation purposes as we paid it in full online each month. Even after moving out of the Tv and back into a house in 2020 we still maintain that file of subscriptions and autopay things.

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