The Digital Side of Death: How to Manage the Deceased's Electronic Life After Bereavement
Bereavement is bad enough. It gets worse when the partner, relatives or friends of the deceased find out just how many activities he or she conducted through their personal computer, for which the account password is now not known.
Canceling or modifying these usually requires access to email, and often another authentication device such as a mobile phone. Whilst Internet browsers have the capability to store login credentials for websites and thus be available once a user is logged on, this facility may not have been used, or may not be available for high-sensitivity websites such as electronic banking. Any failure requiring re-entry of these credentials can require long periods of time waiting for a customer service agent from the organization owning the website, and then a long conversation over a poor quality phone line with a non-native English speaker to try and explain the situation.
Passwords and Credentials
Obtaining access to a machine if you don't have an account on it is not difficult if you have physical access to the machine and it can be rebooted. This is why servers in organizations are commonly kept in a secure environment. Any IT support provider should be able to do this.
However, almost every electronic service now requires a username and password, and many now use two-factor authentication, commonly achieved by sending a message with a code to a mobile phone after one factor (the password) has been supplied. Internet banking always uses two-factor authentication, commonly using a mobile phone as the second factor. Australian government services accessed via the internet (including financial reporting for businesses, which may well continue after a bereavement), use two-factor authentication with a mobile phone. This means that the deceased's mobile phone may also need to be operational and accessible in order to access services using two-factor credentials. If it's not - you'll have a lot of talking to do, and you may be required to submit a lot of documentation to establish your right to access the service.
Web browsers obligingly offer to remember credentials for websites, but this remembering is specific to an account on a machine. If the machine dies, the passwords become inaccessible. Retrieving stored credentials in this situation is possible, but will require highly specialized geek services. If the dead machine used a solid-state drive, the process gets even more complex and expensive.
Insurance against this situation is easy but requires pre-planning. Make sure all your credentials (username and password) for services that you use are written down and updated as required. Store this document along with your Will, so that it can be accessed if required.
Social Media and Web Sites
What happens to the deceased's Facebook page? If you don't have access to it, expect to have to produce documentation indicating your right to have it memorialized. This means that it won't be discoverable in search and cannot be changed. You won't have access to the account. Facebook does provide for 'legacy' contact, but much easier is to include your username and password for Facebook in the list of other credentials.
Twitter and other social media will require extensive documentation, including a death certificate, to prove your right to close the account.
If the deceased had a website, the process for closing this will vary depending on the service provider. It may be as simple as a phone call but is likely to require documentation.
Email is often a crucial communication channel, so ensuring that this is operational is a high priority.
Once the deceased's email is working, the next task is to follow up any pending issues. These may touch on any aspect of life and can include insurance claims, legal disputes, or complaints about goods or services. Then there are the personal emails for keeping in touch, often no more frequent than one or two a year but still important. A broadcast message to all of these people announcing what has happened saves the embarrassment of their Christmas email bouncing and attempts at phone contact ending in “This number is no longer in service”. But identifying these occasional correspondents from an Inbox which may contain thousands of messages using native Apple Mail, Gmail or Outlook facilities is not easy. Use of a specialist service provider is recommended.
Digital photos are seldom required to wrap up the affairs of the deceased, but there may be some which are of particular significance to relatives, and they are increasingly used in memorial services and functions as well as being sent to distant family members. Finding them amid the tens of thousands of images that may be stored on the computer or attached storage devices is a daunting prospect, as camera storage is often transferred to other media with the intention of “sorting them out later”, which is seldom realized.
The days of the scrapbook with photos annotated with those present and the location are long gone. The normal situation is to find folders with names such as “Greece 2008”, “Christmas Canberra 2003” perhaps containing thousands of pictures and the occasional video. Dates of the photos may be the only clue to their having interesting content without looking at all of them. Fortunately, most computers provide a thumbnail view of image and video content as an option for viewing folder content.
If photos exist as prints or slides, equipment for scanning these to create digital copies is now readily available. Once images are in digital form, they can be easily shared via photo sharing services, such as Google Photos albums. To preserve information that might have been written on the back of photos or, it may be worth adding captions to the images, using image editing software or more specialized applications.
The majority of text documents on a computer may be manuals of little significance, but older people sometimes use a computer as a typewriter and prepare correspondence which is then printed out and mailed. These documents may pertain to ongoing issues and the deceased’s Will may even be amongst them. Wills in the format of electronic documents have been accepted by a South Australian court as evidence of intention (see https://www.piperalderman.com.au/publications/private-client-services/article/7584) so the identification of any such document can be of great importance, especially if the content differs from any other Wills. Expert advice should be obtained on the preservation of such a document if one is identified.
Obtaining a list and summary of text documents on a computer is a difficult task, requiring technology for accessing the enormous variety of text documents which may exist on a computer. Using a specialist service provider is recommended.
What Can I Do?
The best way of minimizing these problems in the event of your demise is to keep and maintain a list of usernames and passwords for all the electronic services that you use. The list should be easily accessible if required. Lodging it with a legal representative is one way of achieving this. Keeping the list current is not a small task, as passwords expire and new electronic services needing credentials keep appearing. If any of your services use two-factor authentication, note the mobile phone number required and how to change it. If you have a mobile phone with keyboard locking enabled, ensure that the unlocking code is stored along with your credentials.
Keeping backups of the entire contents of a computer is also useful - in the event of the computer not working, electronic documents are recoverable, and credentials remembered by Web browsers may be recoverable. Note that if you perform an 'image backup', which is an easy way of recording all the data on a computer, it can only be restored onto identical hardware. If this isn't available, you are up for some expensive services.
The preceding advice will help people clearing up after you have passed on, but if you are dealing with someone else's computer, you will need to trawl through thousands of email messages, photos, and other electronic documents in order to wrap up their affairs. Look for an IT support provider who offers this kind of service - not all of them do.
Have you had any of these problems after bereavement?
If you answered 'Other' to the above poll, I'd like to hear from you so I can extend the article to include help for this situation.