Organizing your digital assets

Robert Powell wrote an article in the USA Today this past week that caught my eye.   The title was “Do not leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords”.  For much of the past year I have been dealing with a situation that dealt with this very subject.  

My Uncle Joe was only nine years older than me.  My mother’s much younger brother, Joe, celebrated with that side of my family the week after this past Christmas.  A few days later, he quickly developed a severe respiratory illness.  Staying at a hotel, he visited an Urgent Care Clinic twice, but would not let my mother visit.  He did not want her to catch whatever he had.

Following the second doctor’s visit, he was sent to the Emergency Room where he was admitted and quarantined in the ICU.   He had an infection of some type and quickly developed pneumonia.  His oxygen levels dropped and within a few days the doctors gave my mother and sister one hour to visit him before he was being put on a ventilator.  

During that one hour, he managed to give my sister the password to his computer, telling her the location of a file with all his passwords, bank accounts, credit cards, insurance, and other digital information.

Joe went on the ventilator for two weeks before his body gave out.  He died on his 74th birthday, January 17th, 2020.  We now believe, but will never truly know, that he was an early victim of COVID-19, as his illness demonstrated all the classic symptoms.

My sister passed the notes she had taken in that final hour to me.  I began to unravel the financial life of my uncle, who had been single for 50 years.  He had no children or even companion that would have known where to look without this mysterious file he had disclosed.

When I finally opened the file, I found over 50 accounts of various types.  Some were meaningless, such as subscriptions to magazines or login information for websites.  But others were a virtual treasure trove of information.  

Joe left no will.  I now believe that without the last minute disclosure of the file we would never have been able to determine his assets, the location of his storage buildings, his bank accounts, or many other things that are necessary to put a deceased person’s final estate in order.

This past week, I received a check from Regions Bank for the final sum left in one of his bank accounts.  Even with the login information and passwords, it took 11 months to close out that account.  Had my uncle left a will, it would have been handled in six weeks.  

More than ever, I now realize that the final gift you can leave your family is one of the most important.  Have your digital life accessible to your designated executor.  If you do not have a will, get one because it can make a difference even in a small estate.  

These digital assets, IDs, and passwords should also include the login accounts for your social media accounts.  It is incredibly difficult to terminate a Facebook account after someone dies without the credentials.  

It is good to use a password tool, such as Dashlane or LastPass.  However, if hesitant to do so, make a list of every account, ID, and password, along with a description.  Make sure someone you trust has access to that information.

During the past year, I have discovered my uncle had a joint account with my grandfather, who died in 1999.  We had to get certified copies of his death certificate and Letters of Administration to gain access to that money.   

I also discovered the location of two storage buildings he had that had boating equipment, extensive tools, and a sextant that I just found out may be worth up to $1,600.  I would never have known they existed without his last hour clues about where to find the information.

It is ironic that one the best gifts my uncle gave his heirs was done just minutes before he went on a ventilator.   An incredibly detailed spreadsheet made sure his personal possessions and other items of value made their way into his family’s hands and were not lost forever.

Check out the USA Today article for more suggestions.  In the meantime, write your information down and leave it with someone you trust.  Get a will, if you do not have one, even a simple one.  The alternative can lead to even more heartache for those you love.

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Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]

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