After a loved one dies, it can be helpful to have a “digital executor” to help safely manage online accounts.
A few months ago, following the death of my father, I took a phone call from a friend asking for some advice. Her friend’s son had recently died tragically, and the family was unable to unlock his smartphone to view the final photos he took while on vacation out of the country. I explained I was also in the process of trying to take care of a loved one’s technology after death and was able to provide some advice.
The experience of sorting out a deceased loved one’s technology is complicated. However, I found it also to be a rewarding experience. Although my father died more than three months ago, I’m still working on closing out his many online accounts, organizing his photos, and determining which files to save and which to delete. I’ve learned a lot performing these tasks and thought it would be helpful to share some tips so others can be prepared when the time comes.
The Digital Executor
I confess I was not familiar with the term “digital executor” until I looked at my father’s will. My brother and I were named co-executors of his will, but I was named solely as the digital executor. In several paragraphs, it laid out the responsibilities of the digital executor, which included handling all his digital property related to his personal, financial and business matters.
This designation gave me the authority to freeze or close online accounts with banks, email providers, social networking sites, data storage and shopping sites. It also outlined my tasks in managing his digital data stored on local computers and in the cloud.
As digital executor, I was given the ability to safely archive or delete files, plan and execute a reasonable security model for accessing those archived digital files, and retrieve any passwords needed to perform the tasks outlined in the will. While I didn’t need to rely upon the authority outlined in the will to handle any of these tasks, it was reassuring I was granted the legal right to do so, if needed.
I would highly recommend assigning a designated digital executor in your will so your survivors are able to manage your technology as simply as possible. Applications are available to help you plan a course of action for managing your digital life after your death.
The biggest technology-related hassle after a parent or other loved one dies is gaining access to their online accounts. Unless they left behind an easy-to-find spreadsheet of all their online accounts (email, financial, shopping, media, travel, etc.) with login credentials, this can become a time-consuming endeavor.
I found the easiest way to access passworded accounts was to simply reset the password using a mobile number to authenticate the account. Obviously, this can only be done if you still have access to the deceased’s mobile phone and number. It is, therefore, a good idea to keep the mobile account active for a couple of months following the death. Without access to the mobile number (or email account in some cases), there are other ways to authenticate accounts using the Social Security number and death certificate.
Gaining access to the deceased’s contact list is also an important task for the survivor charged with managing their technology. The contact list might contain their digital accounts with login credentials and contact people for those accounts. This is especially important to have regarding financial accounts.
I found it was helpful to send out notifications from my father’s email address to the representatives of his financial accounts alerting them of his death and that I would be requesting access to those accounts. This simple notification sped up closing out or transferring digital accounts. Sending notifications to individuals who recently sent email messages to the deceased’s email accounts is also helpful before closing out any email accounts to let them know why their messages went unanswered. It’s helpful to keep email accounts open and managed for at least a year as this will help to close registrations, memberships or subscriptions.
Determining which files, email messages, photos and videos to keep is a tricky decision. The first thing I realized was that my father maintained a lot of backup versions of his data — both locally on hard drives as well as in the cloud. This redundant backup situation meant that it took a lot of time to determine which files were duplicates. When deciding which photos and videos to keep, I realized I already had many of those in my own collection, so I didn’t want to keep duplicates.
You don’t want to delete digital data if you don’t need to so the rule of thumb should be to keep files until you’re completely certain you (or future generations) won’t want them. It might be wise to keep all digital data for at least a year following the death. For me, it was helpful to first organize the data (including my father’s vast digital photo collection) before determining which files to delete.
Managing a deceased loved one’s social media accounts can be one of the most important tasks after their death. This is relatively new territory for survivors, and social media companies only recently created protocols to handle this. Most of the major social media companies (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.) spell out the steps necessary for a designated survivor to either put these accounts into an archival mode or to shut them down. The instructions for this are either outlined in the terms of service or in the help section. Facebook’s ability to put a deceased person’s account into “Remembering” mode has become common and is a useful way to inform others of your loved one’s death.
Managing a deceased loved one’s digital life is a big responsibility. For me, it has been a rewarding experience as I have tried to organize my late father’s digital files over the past few months. It’s given me a new perspective on his life and allowed me to grieve his loss while searching through his digital photo and video library. This experience has also allowed me to help my father after his death, as I continue to try to fulfill the commandment of honoring one’s father.
Rabbi Jason Miller is the son of the late Gary D. Miller, a tech-savvy futurist and software designer, who founded Miller Systems in 1994. Rabbi Jason is an educator and entrepreneur, who is the president of Access Technology in West Bloomfield. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.