|Passwords: Give Them to Your Executor & Power of Attorney In Case You Die or Become Disabled
Disclaimer: Please note that I am not an attorney or a legal expert. This newsletter simply outlines my own opinions regarding how you might approach this issue; I offer no legal advice for your particular situation. You should consult your own attorney or other appropriate, trusted advisor before implementing an estate plan or making any other legal decisions in this area.
If you talk to any estate attorney, they will ask whether you have drawn up a will, a durable power of attorney, and a health care proxy, so that your legal and financial affairs can be managed according to your wishes if you become disabled or when you die.
Without these important documents (plus a few others), the state's rules will apply, which are likely to be very different than what you would prefer, and may lead to more complicated and expensive consequences later, either for you or your loved ones.
The overall idea is that if you combine well-informed advance planning with choosing a few key people that you trust, you can put a plan in place that will implement what you want while also avoiding any number of problems and complications later.
However, since the internet is now such a pervasive part of our lives, in order for the people you have chosen to be able to act on your behalf (your executor named in your will in the event of your death, your agent or attorney-in-fact named in your durable power of attorney if you become disabled, etc.), they will probably also need access to your online accounts in order to manage your affairs.
I recognize that it may not be easy for you (or the people who care about you) to think about your death or disability, but if you don't take action on this in advance of your need, you're making it much more difficult for the very people who you've chosen to help you to be able to do that, and also creating a lot more work for them, just like setting up a good backup system now is a good way to address the risk of computer failure in the future.
In order to do this effectively, each of your trusted people (your executor, agent, attorney, trustee, family member, friend, colleague, etc.) will need your passwords.
Otherwise, their ability to get things done for you will probably be delayed by weeks or months as they contact your various online companies in order to first prove that they have the legal authority to act on your behalf, and then get the right person to help them reset each of your passwords.
So, arranging to give them your password chart (the list of usernames, passwords, security questions and answers, and any other useful information about your online accounts) will save them a lot of time and trouble.
And while your computer's web browser may have stored many of your website passwords for your convenience, your trusted person might not end up using your computer, so that stored-password mechanism may not end up helping them.
Things to consider that can help you pick an approach
Before you give someone access to (or a copy of) your password chart, there are a number of factors to consider:
I also suggest that you give them all of your passwords if possible, since you may not be able to predict what they will need to accomplish. This includes passwords for your email, online banking, credit cards, investment and brokerage houses, vendors, utilities, stores, etc.
- Where do you currently store your passwords -- In a (hopefully well-encrypted) file or database on your computer? On your mobile devices? In the "cloud" (i.e., in an online account)? On paper?
- What will you give your trusted person -- A copy of your password list (electronic or on paper)? Direct access to the original (on your computer, in the cloud, on paper)? Instructions on how to find it later, when they need it? Contact information for the person who you have separately entrusted with your list (close friend, family member, computer consultant)?
- How will you get your passwords to them in a secure manner that preserves your privacy and security?
- When will you do this? In advance of any need, with periodic updates since it's probably changing all the time?
- To whom do you feel comfortable giving this responsibility? Are their technical and administrative skills appropriate for what will be involved? Should you give them written, legal authority to act on your behalf as your "digital executor," or is a casual understanding sufficient for your situation?
What if you have not yet gathered your passwords into a perfect list or database?
- You show your trusted person where your paper password list is stored in your house, e.g., a particular bookcase, desk drawer, wall safe, etc.
- You show your trusted person where you store your passwords on your computer, e.g., in a particular document or password database program, or in a particular online account.
- Every 3 months you print out your passwords, make sure it's labeled with today's date, and hand-deliver them to your trusted person, who immediately locks them in their wall safe, after removing and shredding your previous printout.
- Every month you copy your encrypted password database to a flash drive and bring it (or mail it) to your trusted person, who has already made a note of your database's master password (which you either brought to them in person or told them over the phone, not via email or texting) in a completely separate place.
- Every month you give a copy of your password database to one trusted person, and its master password to a second trusted person, having chosen them because you are confident that they will work together when you need them.
Even if you haven't gotten all of your passwords organized yet (nor put together an official estate plan), I still recommend that you gather your most important passwords (email, online banking, credit cards, etc.), think about the issues above, and then arrange a reasonable way for people that you know and trust to help you when you need it, especially if this seems like an overwhelming project for you to accomplish on your own. You can always improve the process over time.
Where to go from here
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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.