How to be prepared for death in a digital age


Death isn’t something most of us want to spend time thinking about, but it is inevitable for all of us, and we need to think about passing on our digital assets as well as our physical and financial ones. Most of us know that we should have a will and beneficiaries designated on investment accounts so that our assets are distributed to the right people, but many people don’t even take this first step. However, those of us who live and work online really need to go further, and think about how our loved ones should have access to our digital assets, accounts and information.

This is a very personal post for me, since I am dealing with the sudden death of my father, a fellow geek and web worker. He died without a will and without any way for us to access his password-protected computers. He did freelance work for clients as well as in-home computer repair for individuals. We have a stack of computers that we are pretty sure belong to other people, but they aren’t labeled and without access to his computer records, we can’t find the owners. We also know that he administered a bunch of systems for a big client, but we don’t know exactly who the contract was with, or who to contact to notify them. The computers in the house also control key household components, like the lights, and run the web servers for his personal and professional websites, so we’re trying to wait a bit before trying to hack into them to get access for fear of taking out critical household functionality. Would your family members would have similar difficulties if you died or became incapacitated in some way?

Here are a few things that you should consider:

  • Password management. Come up with some way for your family to access certain critical accounts or computers. I know one person who has an encrypted database with all of his passwords and the access information is in a sealed envelope in a safe. Other people use a password management system, like 1Password or LastPass, and make sure that a trusted family member has a way to access it. How you choose to do this depends on how you manage your passwords and how often you change them. I think most of us could find some creative way to make it easy for our family to get access to at least a few key accounts.
  • Technical documentation. Make sure that you have some kind of documentation about your technology in a place that people can access it without having access to one of your systems. This is especially important if you have systems tied together in a complicated manner. If you don’t have another tech-savvy family member, make sure that this documentation includes the names and phone numbers of a couple of trusted friends who can help out.
  • Client or work contacts. Keep a file or some kind of documentation about your clients in a place where other people can access it. At a minimum, you might want to include the name, email address and phone number of each current client, or your manager if you are a corporate worker, so that they can be contacted. I know that when I was running my solo consulting business, I kept everything on my password-protected computer, and it would have been very difficult for my family to contact my clients if anything happened to me.
  • Digital assets. Most of us have family photographs and other digital assets that our family will want to access later. Make sure that someone knows how to find those important photographs and other documents, and don’t rely on online photo storage services, which might be deleted at some point. If you keep most of your data on your own server (hosted or onsite), leave instructions for how to access and download anything that someone might want to save.

What else can we do to make this easier for our families? How prepared are you?

Photo used courtesy of Ken Mayer


Jim Vanides

Dawn – Thank you for sharing this practical and thoughtful post. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your father, made even more intense by the sudden reality. My heart goes out to you and your family.

I have one additional recommendation, based on what came to light when my sister passed away recently: Have a Facebook plan.

News travels faster than you’d like it sometimes, and the family needs a plan for dealing with Facebook in general, and if the person has a Facebook account, how you plan to respond to the chatter (both well meaning and uninformed).

Some suggestions from our experience:

* Don’t post on behalf of the person who passed away. It’s just to odd

* Do ask someone in the family to monitor the person’s FB page and be the family spokesperson/”Facebook Guardian”; choose someone who is comfortable with FB and is comfortable talking to the key family survivors (spouse, parents, etc)

* Don’t rush – coordinate communication on FB with whoever is handling phone and snailmail outreach. It’s awkward for grieving spouses to prematurely start receiving phone calls from people saying, “Hi, I just heard on Facebook…”

* Do let FB friends grieve… and have a plan for archiving or shutting down the site at some time. Until then, your selected FB guardian should monitor the page and alert any family who are not FB connected, in case a kind word worth sharing comes in.

I hope this helps!

Om Malik


I am sorry to hear about your loss. Hope you are holding up and if there is anything we can do, please drop me a note.

Thank you as well for thinking about others in this time of trial. Truly gracious of you.

Tom Guarriello

Sorry to hear of your loss, Dawn.

You’ve done a good job of advising people about preparing for death’s consequences. What most of us don’t do, however, is to prepare for the dying process. The type of medical care we wish to receive in the last months of our lives is haphazardly determined today. Living wills, advanced medical directives and medical power of attorney are all vital mechanisms for helping our loved ones to follow our wishes at those times when we may be able to express those wishes ourselves.

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