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24 May 2007

Why it's important to prepare a Digital Will

Many of us can't be bothered to prepare a real Will, with the resultant tax confusion and uncertainty that this causes especially in the event of premature death. However, we live in the first age where our digital possessions matter and important emails, contacts, music collections, online accounts, photos, domain names and online financial details may be difficult or even impossible to obtain after our death especially if they are encrypted.

Living in the age of the birth of the machine, I suggested last August to Cambrian House the idea of how to access files after the owner dies. With a strong interest in genealogy, I imagine a future where the online assets of the people of today will be of interest to the genealogists of tomorrow. My grandfather was born in the 1870s and lived to old age, yet despite living in the era of photography only 2 pictures of him remain. In this modern age where we have thousands of digital pictures, our grandchildren will surely appreciate access to these historic pictures rather than having them wiped out by bureacracy.

Consider this. A close friend dies, but like many people nowadays their contact details for their friends are electronic, many held online. The funeral is in 5 days. You have approximately 3 days to get access to their account and contact people and they need to pick up the e-mail or instant message in time to be able to make travel arrangements for the funeral. In many cases, with the complexity of bureaucracy surrounding getting access to a person's account, faxing death certificates (often sending them overseas) and dealing with ISPs and organisations many of whom might not have an "after death" procedure or policy, you probably wouldn't be able to contact these people in time. As the digital age progresses, our dependency on hard copy letters from friends, address books and so on will diminish and the problem will get worse. Encrypted and password protected data (including accessing paypal balances) is another matter entirely.

Take just one element of this puzzle - accessing the deceased person's webmail to contact people is at the whim of the webmail provider, some might not provide access at all - as was discovered last year in the case of families trying to access the accounts of Iraq war victims, If you're not successful in gaining access, within a few months it will be deleted forever. Law.com covers this story in further detail. On the other hand, trying to cancel an AOL account is difficult enough when you're alive - if someone else tries to do it on behalf of a deceased person it's only going to be much more difficult.

Another popular email provider, Gmail, doesn't publicise their terms, I looked for death in the Gmail help centre and got this:

Your search - death - did not match any answers in this Help Center.


For the level of complexity regarding access to digital data you need only look at this article which details the Gmail procedure as follows:
Google needs your full name and contact information, a verifiable email address, the full header and content of an email you have received from this person's account, a copy of the death certificate and a copy of the document that gives you power of attorney over the email account.

"If you are the parent of the Gmail account owner and she or he was under the age of 18, you must submit a copy of the birth certificate as well, and power of attorney is not required," he says. But keep in mind that after nine consecutive months of inactivity, Google is likely to delete the email account.


It is all very well for online providers to uphold user's privacy, but as detailed in this zdnet article that on death, privacy rights cease yet this is often what is cited when trying to access the deceased's data.

In summary, I would suggest these things.

1. That you list your important accounts in your Will
2. Your Will references a file where the passwords are kept. Don't put the passwords in the Will itself, they change too frequently for this to be practical. The file should be in a location that is secure, but ideally not online.
3. That collectively, online service providers agree a common procedure for dealing with the accounts of deceased people which is secure yet still allows efficient and
straightforward access to the account once a death certificate is produced and allows the account contents to be retrieved and closed under the control of the deceased person's estate in a way which is no more complex than closing their bank accounts.

Please help to promote this important campaign. One day you, or future genealogists, may need it.

Craig
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