I will never say it was lucky that my dad died suddenly, but I will say the experience provided many unexpected learning opportunities that I feel lucky to have had.
One of the stickiest and most dramatic lessons I learned, over and over, is that it's very hard to close a dead man's mobile phone account. Another lesson: It's very hard to guess a dead man's email password, and even harder to persuade an ISP to help you.
Dad died in 2001. If he died today -- well, my mom would be a bigamist, but that's not the point -- if he died today, we'd probably be dealing with twenty times as many digital accounts. We'd need to figure out what to do with his Facebook, his Twitter, his Flickr, his ... everything.
There are a lot of reasons to plan ahead, but one of the most compelling is to spare your loved ones the headache of handling your digital detritus. Prompted by today's Google Public Policy post about their new "Inactive Account Manager" feature, here are my five suggestions for setting up your digital affairs for your next of kin.
1. Have the bravest, most vulnerable talk of your life with your executor -- talk about your passwords and how to retrieve them. It's easy to assume that your best friend will remember that you always use Duran Duran song titles as the root words for your passwords, or that your wife will be able to remember the years the Oakland As won the world series and discern your PINs from there. It's also incredibly wrong. Grief makes people overwhelmed and forgetful. So write this shizz down and encrypt the file with a password that your significant other keeps on a slip of paper in their wallet.
(At left: Taking a break from Rio and dancing on the sand.)
Action item: Make a password table (account name/site, user name, password), encrypt that file and make your executor write down the password for the file on a slip of paper. If you have an attorney who handles your estate planning, see if you can leave an envelope containing a thumb drive (with the account info table) and a slip of paper with the password with her.
2. Draft a digital media will. You may want to keep your websites alive and kicking after your death; stipulate that now. Your heirs need to know your wishes. If you do want your websites to live on after your death, you need to also outline the billing information, and set aside some money for the upkeep. You should also think about what you'd like to have happen to your social media accounts, and write out those wishes.
Action item: Read this blog entry on what to think about when writing a social media will, then draft your own.
3. Educate yourself on what it would take to nuke your accounts from orbit. This way, you have an idea of what you're asking of your loved ones, and you may even be compelled to thin out your existing online accounts.
Action item: Keep an updated folder or Evernote notebook with a compilation of "How to delete this account" information for all your accounts. Start with WikiCancel, which has links to "delete this account" instructions for all manner of websites.
4. Conduct your computing life in such a way that you don't need to designate the "porn buddy" to rush over and wipe your computer and smartphone in the event of your death. Unless you want your friends and relatives to have the awkward experience of explaining to your mom what tentacle porn is and why you had so much of it bookmarked, that is.
Action item: Practice clean web surfing (no saved cookies, passwords or browser history) and extend those practices to your cloud-based accounts. At least, to the cloud-based accounts you will need other people to deal with upon your demise.
5. Once you've taken care of business, nag your partner and your relatives until they've done likewise. Yeah, thinking about your mortality is a drag, but don't let your feeeeeeeeeelings get in the way of doing the kind and compassionate thing for your loved ones.
Action item: Go back and read the preceding paragraph.
Did I miss anything? Let me know on twitter -- I'm at @lschmeiser.