CH 10 – Your Digital Afterlife


There are many books and articles on making sure that your family is prepared when you pass away – knowing about the insurance, your burial or cremation wishes, insurance policies and things like that.

Now there is something else to make sure that your loved ones are prepared for – your digital afterlife.

For example – do you know your spouse’s iTunes userid and password.  If you share, say, an iPad with your spouse, Apple says that each person should have their own iTunes account and purchase their own apps.

If you buy a CD (remember them?), the first sale doctrine says that you OWN the CD (not the music itself, but the instantiation of that music on that CD.  You can give that CD to anyone you want.

But when it comes to the digital world, the same rules do not apply.  Apple allows you to transfer music you (thought) you bought to a certain number of devices, but you cannot legally pass them on to other people (see article at .  Unfortunately, Apple’s license agreement is not really clear on the subject.

On the other hand, Apple is highly unlikely to know that your spouse died – certainly not quickly – and if you log in with your spouse’s password and export the music from iTunes, you sidestep the issue.  It may not be legal – but then again, it may be.

And, if you burn the music to a CD – which you can do – then you can transfer that CD to anyone you want – the first sale doctrine now applies because we are talking about something tangible.

The challenge is that we all have digital personas – some more than others.  Here are some things to consider.

And, people can pass away unexpectedly so don’t assume that you still have years to deal with it.  You may.  But then again, you may not.

  • Passwords to your personal computer – is your computer password protected?  Hacking it to get to the data may be hard – almost impossible.
  • Passwords to your phone and/or tablet.  Same goes for these.  If the devices are encrypted – the default now for many devices – it becomes even more difficult because you cannot take the disk out and put it in another computer – it would still be encrypted.
  • Cloud accounts.  Do you even know what cloud accounts the person has, never mind the passwords.
  • Email – Do you know the passwords to your significant other’s email?  Likely your email provider won’t hand that over to you.
  • Encrypted email – some email providers like Absio and Silent Circle just to name two, offer encrypted email, text and or chat.  These providers tell you going in that they CANNOT reset a password – the system does not have a mechanism to do that.  If you don’t have the password, you are, as they say, e-Screw-ed.
  • Online bank access – if the account is joint, you can have or newly create your own userid and password to get access.  If it not joint, the bank will not give you the password and you will not have access to the money until your file for probate, find the will, have someone approved as executor by the court and have the probate court create letters testamentary (the rules likely vary in some states, but this is the usual custom).  This could take from a couple of days up to a really long time, for example, if you cannot find a will or there is none.  If you have the password then you can pay bills, for example, even if it strictly is not legal.
  • eBay/Paypal.  DO NOT TELL THEM that your significant other is no longer on this plain.  If you or someone else tells them that the person has passed away the account is closed.  Any listings he or she had are cancelled; any purchases voided.  IF this is what you want, then things are cool.  If you want to at least look at the state of that eBay account, then don’t ask them for help.
  • Facebook.  Facebook is the most important thing in the world, right?  Well now you can memorize someone’s Facebook account to preserve it.  It is different than being able to log into it, but it may be useful.  Read details on how to do it and what it means at .
  • Electronic bills.  If the person lived by themselves – like, for example, an adult brother or sister – and they received their bills electronically, then you can’t look in their mailbox to find out that they owe the gas or electric company money.  You may only find out about that when the utility company turns off the lights, heat or water.  All other eBills work the same way.  More than likely, utilities will work with you once you have letters testamentary because they want to get paid, but …..
  • Post office box.  The post office puts the bill for the PO Box IN THE BOX when it is due.  If you live in a different city or state than the person who’s estate you are managing did and don’t check the box very often, then you may discover that you have lost the box as the Post Office did not get paid, so they changed the lock and returned the mail as undeliverable.   The Post Office may be extremely helpful in general, but if you lose the box you likely will never be able to get it back.
  • Brokerage accounts.  No one has physical stock certificates any more (do they even exist)?  Again, with letters testamentary, the brokerage will be very helpful – but do you know where the brokerage accounts exist?
  • Life insurance.  See brokerage accounts.
  • Safe Deposit boxes.  Kind of like brokerage accounts and life insurance, but (a) you need to know what bank branch they live in, (b) if you don’t have the key, they will drill the lock out for maybe $100-$200 and (c) if the box is in the deceased’s name, the tax man may want to be present to inventory the contents.  It used to be that banks read the obits to see who died and locked their boxes, but many people don’t have an obit anymore and I don’t know if the banks even still do that.
  • In at least one recent case, Apple required a court order to turn over a password (see article at ).  I expect every case is different.

So first, to the degree possible, if you are the executor or executrix for someone’s estate, it is probably good to talk to that person about having them document their digital footprint.

If the person uses a password safe utility, some of them allow for synchronization or keeping a copy of the password safe.  The person could give someone they trust – say you – access to that password safe.  That of course depends on how much they trust you.  Last Pass, for example, has an escrow service that is pretty cool.  You designate one or most trusted people and they have a mechanism to release your password safe to them.

Of course, there is social engineering.  If you know enough about the person, you likely can socially engineer most online services to get them to reset the password.  Likely this may not be legal, but it is simple.  If the person used their email for the online service and the service asks security questions like what is your mother’s maiden name, if you know that, the service will reset the password and likely send a link to the person’s email address, which you (hopefully) have access to.

Finally, a word is in order about biometrics.  If the device you want to get into is protected solely by biometrics, you likely have a problem.  For example, many gun safes use fingerprints for access.  If you don’t have the deceased’s fingerprints (and you will not), then you may have to break into the safe.  For some things, that is not a big problem and for many things, physically breaking in is not harmful, but if, for example, your phone is protected solely by biometrics, you cannot crack it open like a safe to get into the phone.  I am not sure if any phones work that way, but some may.

Bottom line, this is a whole new world and planning and communication (on both party’s parts) is critical.  Dealing with the issue while you are both alive is dramatically easier.  

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