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Remember your online life after death

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Roberto -- not his real name -- passed away four weeks ago.

His family is still trying to figure out who will get his access to Netflix account for free movies, how to get back the money left in his PayPal accounts, how to unlock his Facebook page so they can shut it down, and how to track down his Flickr, Smug Mug and Picasa accounts to find the stored pictures from the last few family get-togethers.

They need to find the records for his online bank and investment accounts, but do not have any paper statements in the house.

Having accessed Roberto's smartphone, the family was shocked, and ultimately pleased, to find out he was having a torrid online affair with a woman in Oklahoma.

Twenty years ago, we did not have to worry about passwords, online access and Facebook friends when someone passed away. There was no concern about accessing online banking and checking electronic transfers and bill payments because paper records for bank and investment accounts were always available.

Now, figuring out a person's online life is becoming a big part of the estate-settlement process.

Many accounts are only stored online, and the same great security systems that protect our data pose a huge obstacle to executors' attempts to gather the information necessary to settle an estate.

Step one in addressing this issue is to think about it. What are all of the online obstacles and assets that someone will need to access if you passed away. Make a list of the items and potential issues this would create.

Are there items with either sentimental or monetary value that should be addressed in your will, or in an accompanying personal effects memo? Since these things can change frequently, I strongly recommend the second document, but this is a talk you and your lawyer should have.

If you're like me, you are already having trouble keeping track of all your online accounts, user names, passwords and PINs. That challenge means listing them somewhere, in spite of what we have always been told about security, and memorizing and destroying all passwords.

There are several options. My favourite is a written list (OK, call me old school...) that leaves out a few characters from each item, but gives you the memory prompt you need. But for your estate, you will need to provide a full list, which you have to put somewhere safe, but where your executor will know where to find it.

Some people have a password-protected file in their computer, tablet or smartphone that shows all such info. That works as well, but has the same challenge of making sure your executor has access.

Online services are also available, such as Lastpass and 1Password. The geeks tell me any fears and insecurities about sending my data through the cloud are unfounded.

Make sure the right person has the access information.

Also outline in writing how you want these things handled. Do you want a Facebook shrine set up, or do you want it shut down?

What about shopping or payment services? Do these have value? Who gets it and how do they recover it?

Email is a big issue. As I understand it, Google requires a death certificate in order to access a deceased person's account, but Yahoo may require a court order.

Sorry to start your weekend off with one more thing to think about but, hey, that's my job!

David Christianson, BA, CFP, R.F.P., TEP, is a Winnipeg financial planner.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 B9

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