Another new problem when you die: All those online passwords

Turns out, you can take something with you when you die: all those passwords you keep stored in your

Turns out, you can take something with you when you die: all those passwords you keep stored in your head or scribbled on scraps of paper only you can find.

Protecting your information online with passwords is great for deterring hackers and thieves but frustrating for your loved ones if you die unexpectedly.

From cellphones that unlock with a passcode only you know, to online accounts where you pay bills and have statements sent to your email, to electronic address books where you keep contact information for old friends rather than the old pen-and-paper way, people live more of their lives in a digital world where you have to know the secret code to get in.

And as computer-savvy baby boomers age, fewer people will leave a paper trail when they die.

“Most spouses probably don’t know the other spouse’s password even to get into their email, let alone the financial accounts,” said Harry V.B. Miller, principal of the Herzog Law Firm in Albany. “People don’t talk about it much in conversation, and they probably don’t write it down anyplace.”

Estate planners are becoming more aware of the importance of leaving behind information about online accounts, both the important ones like trading stocks and the fun ones like photo- and video-sharing sites and social networking sites such as Facebook accounts.

“The main issue is, what’s going to happen to this stuff? It’s all floating out there,” Miller said. “Most people don’t write down what, if anything, they want to happen to that stuff after they die.”

Leave instructions

People who want the accounts to be closed or the photos or videos to be turned over to a certain person need to specify that when they plan their estates.

And people might want to write down financial account information and passwords and either give it to a trusted loved one or lock it up in a safe at home or a bank safety deposit box. People also can put the information on a CD or flash drive and store it in the same places.

“These days, a lot of people are not receiving written statements, so if the family is sitting around waiting at the mailbox to find out what Mom and Dad have in assets, the information may never come,” said Michael Ettinger, president of the Ettinger Law Firm, which has nine offices in the state, including Saratoga Springs and Albany. “The issue is actually increasing in frequency because more and more people are doing online banking.”

But financial information is tricky, because while heirs need to know about the accounts, in most cases they’re not allowed to access them until they get the OK from the court.

For example, heirs shouldn’t be selling stocks or taking money out of bank accounts until they’re permitted by the probate process that happens after a person dies, said Glenn Witecki of the Schenectady-based Witecki Law Office.

“I’m more concerned with preventing the unauthorized use of that information,” Witecki said.

The one exception is if the deceased set up a trust, allowing the trustee automatic access to assets. Few people have enough money to handle their estates that way.

“The higher net worth someone is, the more likely they are to get involved with trust,” Witecki said.

Without a trust, heirs can’t even access a safety deposit box without court approval, unless they’re named on it before the person’s death. Even someone with power of attorney has to wait for the probate proceeding because power of attorney ends at death.

But Witecki said it’s still fairly easy for estate lawyers to get asset information or transfer bill accounts even if passwords aren’t written down. Spouses and children usually know enough about the deceased person’s life to put the pieces together.

“Most people around here have local bank accounts,” Witecki said. “We call up the bankers and talk to them.”


Even most social networking sites have written policies to turn information over to successors who don’t have passwords, or to destroy it on request. For example, Facebook allows survivors to turn the deceased person’s social networking page into a memorial, deleting certain personal information and allowing people to post messages remembering their friend.

Two major web-based email companies give survivors information from a person’s email account if they mail or fax certain documents, while a third prohibits it. Google asks for a copy of the death certificate and legal paperwork showing the person represents the estate before giving access to a G-mail account; Microsoft requests similar documentation and will send copies of messages and address book information but not a password to get into the account. That way survivors can get email addresses of their loved one’s friends and read messages that were sent and received.

Yahoo doesn’t give survivors any rights to view email; the only option it offers heirs in its policy is closing the account. But the company will turn over emails with a court order, as one couple found out in 2005.

The parents of Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth, a U.S. Marine, asked for access to his Yahoo email after he was killed in Iraq, according to The Associated Press.

The company turned him down, but a Michigan judge ordered Yahoo to turn over the emails, which his parents wanted to turn into a scrapbook because he told them how much he enjoyed emails he received while overseas.

A few online sites have come up with solutions to give out passwords after death, including, whose website says it sends a registered user periodic emails to which they must respond to say they’re still living. When the user stops responding, the company sends the stored information to the designated executor or family member.

Legacy Locker also collects information and releases it to survivors after verifying the person’s death.

Both sites promise to keep sensitive information safe, but whether people want to trust them is another matter.

Categories: Schenectady County

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