BeforeYourNext Birthday-DeniseFisher’s Blog

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What Happens To Your Online Accounts When You Die?

Posted by denisefisher on May 14, 2009

Fortune Cookie of Impending Death Here are some thought-provoking questions that may elicit a sense of uncertainty, if not panic:

  • Do you know how many online accounts you have?
  • Do you have a list of them anywhere?
  • Is that list written or printed out (not just on your computer)?
  • What about passwords to your accounts?
  • Have you informed anyone about your account info, and do they know where/how to find and access it?
  • Where are your digital photos and important electronic documents kept?
  • Where are your purchased music files and other purchased downloads stored?
  • Are your media files and other documents accessible to someone you’d want to have them?
  • What about your private files or accounts – are there any you’d want destroyed or closed without being viewed?
  • Do you have any arrangements made for services or subscriptions that are automatically renewed and charged to your credit card or other financial accounts?

NPR’s program, All Things Considered, did a story on 11 May 2009 about this very topic. Click on this link to read about, or listen to, Your Digital Life After Death.

Over the past few years, several businesses have emerged with online sites and subscription services to deal with the related issues of legal matters, privacy concerns, electronic bequeaths, and designated access, as well as legacy wishes and remembrances.

Listed below is an extensive selection of online resources that might help you in planning the digital details of your eventual demise – they include all of the services I could identify as of the date of this blog posting. I have visited each of the sites to find out what they offer, how their system works, and the rates they are currently charging for their services. The summary descriptions are provided here:

AssetLock.net – This site provides a digital version of traditional estate planning. A template is provided to help remind you of what to include. You can store documents, instructions, and include a listing of accounts and passwords that will be accessible to designated individuals upon your death. You decide who can access which of your entries. There are 3 levels of services and pricing: 20-100-unlimited entries; 20MB-1GB-5GB storage; annual fee of $10-$30-$80.

VitalLock.com – This site describes itself as being in the “Alpha” stage of development and is not yet active.

LegacyLocker.com – A seemingly well-developed service and clearly, the most widely promoted system of its type, this site requires users to designate beneficiaries for their information as well as verifiers of their death. One of its defining criteria is the human oversight element, which requires that a human being provide the company with a death certificate before it will release information or access to the designated beneficiaries. There are 2 levels of services and 3 levels of pricing: the free account includes 3 assets, 1 beneficiary, and 1 legacy letter; the premium service includes unlimited assets, beneficiaries, and letters, and can be paid by a $30 annual subscription or a one-time fee of $300.

SlightlyMorbid.com – This site’s purpose is to send messages or notifications to your online friends in grave situations (not just the situation of your death). Plans are priced as one-time fees, which is described as being similar to the way you would pay for someone to prepare a will. It covers situations of death, natural disaster, accident, serious illness, or whatever you specify. You designate one trusted friend (or up to 5 or 10, for premium plans) and that friend will send out a message to 10 (or 30 or 50, for premium plans) of your online contacts to notify them of your condition, based upon messages you have written in advance. Your trusted friend cannot view or change the messages – they can only activate their delivery. Changes and updates are free for 3 years; after that, changes can be made with a small update fee. The one-time set-up fees are $10-$20-$50.

GreatGoodbye.com – This site’s tagline is “e-mail from the grave.” Its service allows a trusted person with activation codes to send out your final e-mail message with a photo attachment upon your death. When the trusted person activates the process of delivering of your message, a notification is sent to your e-mail address and you are given 21 days in which to cancel the ultimate delivery of your message(s).  I suppose this is in case your trusted person makes a mistake, becomes no longer trustworthy, or you make a miraculous unexpected recovery. Premium packages can include audio or video attachments. There are 4 levels of services and each service has the option of an annual or one-time fee: 1-3-10-500 e-mails; yearly fees of $10-$20-$36-$50; one-time fees of $39-$87-$150-$219.

MyLastEmail.com – This site’s service is basically an online memorial page that you set up in advance, and is made accessible upon your death. The free service includes the posting of 1 document, 1 image, 1 video, and notification of 2 recipients. Premium packages are mentioned on the website, but apparently are not yet available.

YourPersonalScribe.com – This service is unique in its personalization of creating your life story. Sharon Scribe (yeah, that’s who provides this service) writes your personal obituary in advance, with your help. She uses a questionnaire followed by a personal interview with you, as well as interviews with close family members, friends, and colleagues, to prepare your life story. I don’t know what will happen when Sharon Scribe dies, but she also writes wedding toasts, poetry, and tributes for other special occasions in one’s life. The base rate for this service is $300, but has some flexibility for lower income clients.

Deathswitch.com – This site’s model has a very futuristic sci-fi feel to it (even the audio you hear when the page opens or when you roll over a link is very space-age sounding). They call it information insurance. I’d call it a life-watch service. It’s very different from others in that it does not require you to designate a trusted person with the responsibility for initiating the services upon your death. The website summarizes it nicely as “an automated system that prompts you for your password on a regular schedule [at intervals designated by you] to make sure you are still alive.” If you do not respond to multiple follow-up prompts, pre-scripted messages are automatically e-mailed to your named recipients. The company encourages you to test out the service by having the death messages sent to yourself. If for some reason you did not reply (but are still alive) you will get a preliminary message allowing you to click a link that says “Wait I’m still alive!” You can set up a free account that will send your message to 1 recipient with no attachments. The premium account sends up to 30 different messages to up to 10 recipients each (300 recipients total). I could not find the rate information for premium accounts on the site, but an Associated Press article about this service mentioned that it was $20/year.

I scanned through my hand-written list of online accounts (I have 7 pages worth) and found these representative accounts among my listings:

e-mail accounts AOL, Yahoo, G-mail
social networks Facebook, Twitter, Linked In
financial accounts credit union, bank, mortgage company, Visa, home equity line of credit
investments/retirement Thrift Savings Plan, brokerage accounts, retirement account
travel-related sites frequent flier miles, Travelocity account
merchandise accounts Amazon, PayPal, ebay, iStockPhoto, iTunes
image/video/communications Flikr, YouTube, Skype, Oovoo
recurring/renewable payment accounts Verizon DSL service, AOL internet service provider, Corporate Housing ad, GoDaddy domains, Franklin County property tax

My listing will probably remind you of some of your accounts that need to be considered in your planning arrangements. If you prepare and store documents or photos online (also referred to as “the cloud”) you need to take these files into account too. It’s not much of a virtual leap to go from the cloud down to earth and onto your computer and hard drives. You’ve got a lot of information on your computer to consider in your planning too.

These aren’t just issues to consider in anticipation of your death. With so much information being stored electronically, you’ve got a lot of digital eggs being kept in various compartments, but all in one basket.

Have you ever had your computer crash or had your computer lost, stolen, damaged, or destroyed? I have. And so have lots of others. Find someone and ask them about it – they’ll tell you what it was like. When my computer was stolen, the most devastating loss was my collection of family digital photos. The thief could’ve had the computer. I just wanted the files. I had some of the files printed or stored elsewhere, but most of them weren’t backed up, copied to others, or printed out as photos. They were gone forever.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking you’re covered because you back up your files onto an external drive or some other media. If someone breaks into your home and steals your computer, and the hard drive or other media is stored nearby, they’re going to take them all. Same thing for a natural disaster. A fire, flood, electrical- or wind-storm comes along and all your electronic equipment and storage media is likely to suffer the same fate. Ask the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

You’ve got options for saving your data and planning for access and/or deletion of your online accounts, but you have to put the plans in place now. You may not have the advance notice of your impending death in which to take care of these preparations. And even if you do, will you want to spend the remaining months of your life getting your accounts and online documents in order? Will you even have the energy or ability? Think about it, make a plan, and take some preliminary action to get things started. It’s better than doing nothing.

Here’s a closing thought: You can put together your own service plan – a simple, low-tech version of the packages mentioned above. But you actually have to do it. If paying someone else will get you to take action, it would be worth doing that. Even if you start out with a free online plan or put together a paid premium plan for one year, you’ll have organized your information and considered the details of your arrangements, and would be able to cancel your service after a year, by switching to your own at-home version. Enlist another family member to take on this task with you. They need to do it too, and may not have thought about it or started it either. Use the power of partnership and accountability to get your affairs in order.

(Editorial note: for any of you who may be wondering about my previously mentioned grand finale of wardrobe organization, I am in the process of completing and editing it. It’s very long and detailed, even more than my usual posts. So it may be published in a format other than a blog post. Updates will follow.)

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