Passwords, Death and Dylan

Submitted by John Wade Gaddis.

Bob Dylan was right, “The times they are a-changing.”  When I first started handling estates forty years ago, the big unknown was the contents of the decedent’s safe deposit box. Typically, we had to contact the State Inheritance Tax Office and make an appointment to have one of the State’s employees meet us at the bank to inventory the box. It was usually a moment that was fraught with drama and surprises. There were unexpected documents, rogue personal property and secrets in virtually every box. That process has been relegated to history as there is no current obligation to contact the State to open a safe deposit box.

But now, there is a vast amount of private information (and surprises) kept online and/or on a personal computer. Everyone wants to safeguard his/her passwords (and some people have more than a hundred passwords). Passwords are typically memorized and in some events written down and kept in a “safe” place.

But, what if one dies unexpectedly? How are those important passwords recovered?  Usually the passwords are so well hidden that they cannot be found. Not much can be done at that point.

To solve this problem, every estate planning client needs to address the importance of his/her computer based activities. Using a password service that allows a secure password is one approach. (That password should then be prominently listed in a letter to one’s family that is kept with the estate planning documents.)  A less sophisticated idea is to us a “dummy name” as a contact in one’s phone – along with a list that includes all of one’s passwords. (This will necessitate leaving a letter that includes one’s phone password along with the dummy contact.) One thing is sure: every client needs to consider how to apprise his/her family of the important passwords in the event of death or disability.  Unless, of course, “You stay forever young.”