First appeared in USA Today and The Indianapolis Star
Dying was less complicated 20 years ago.
Upon the death of a loved one, a family would obtain a stack of death certificates and get in touch with banks, insurance agents, and the Social Security Administration. After all that was completed, survivors could begin to put together the financial pieces and move on with their lives.
Today, we live digital lives which are chock full of usernames, passwords, and security question answers. Because of this, we leave our survivors in a terrible position upon our deaths.
It’s hard to grieve when you’re trying to remember your loved one’s first pet’s name.
To complicate matters even more, for our own security, our passwords must not only be randomly generated meaningless groups of letters, numbers, and special characters, but they must change quite often. So even if you wanted to keep your family abreast of your security protocol, how could you? Frankly, it’s not practical to update a password list every time you leave the house to grab a gallon of milk, in the event that you’ve met your expiration date.
Recently, I received an email from a woman who is helping her mother cope with the logistical realities of losing her husband. Like a reasonable person should, he froze his credit to both prevent his data from being bought and sold and to prevent identity theft. He even saved his personal identification numbers (PINs) generated from the freezing process. Unfortunately, the PINs aren’t working, and the mother can’t answer the security questions correctly. She’s simply trying to get bills put in her name, but the lack of access to her husband’s credit report is making the process difficult.
To compound issues, her calls to the Internal Revenue Service haven’t been successful because after waiting on hold for hours, she gets transferred, and then the line cuts out on her. Sadly, I’ve experienced the exact same IRS phone nightmare.
I know there are digital solutions which attempt to solve our digital problems, but they aren’t always practical. Do you know what is practical? A Trapper Keeper, or a three-ring binder, or any other device which allow you to keep a bunch of paper documents organized. Ask yourself this simple question: In the midst of the worst emotional pain you’re likely ever to experience due to the death of a loved one, would you rather look for a three-ring binder or try and turn yourself into some sort of computer forensics technician?
Right. Get a binder.
You need four or so sections in your “Peace, I’m out” binder. You need a financial section filled with annual account statements from your bank, retirement plans, or any other investment account. You need a debt section filled with account numbers for mortgages, credit cards, or any other type of debt. You’ll need an insurance section filled with life, health, disability, property and casualty insurance information. And you’ll need a cyber section dedicated to your digital life.
Clearly, the cyber section is the tricky part. It should include major digital accounts from social media to online payment services like PayPal, which often don’t have paper account statements.
Even as I’m writing this column, account after account is coming to mind — accounts I need to make sure my wife knows about to make her life easier in the event that I’m not around to facilitate action. While passwords and usernames would be great, the biggest factor is just letting your survivors know what accounts exist.
Give your family the space to grieve. Don’t leave them shaking their fists at you while they try and figure our whether your screen name is BeastMaster_$49 or Beast_Master_$49. Go retro, and put it in a binder.
Have a question for Pete the Planner? Email him at AskPete@petetheplanner.com or visit petetheplanner.com.