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Estate Planning -- Keep Track of Passwords, Access Keys and PINs

With the ever-growing presence of online and electronic documents, records and accounts, it is becoming essential to keep track of your passwords. Consumers have had access to military grade cryptography for decades, and while it offers an amazing level of protection during life, it can have unintended consequences upon your death, possibly preventing your heirs from carrying out your final wishes.

If you pass away unexpectedly, your family may be precluded altogether from accessing important electronic records such as emails and bank accounts. Accordingly, you need to establish a way to keep track of important logins, passwords, access keys and personal identification numbers (PINs) to ensure that your family and loved ones can access important online and electronic records.

Create a Plan for Storing Your Passwords Securely

There is shockingly no standardized way to keep track of important account information to ensure that your spouse, kids or lawyer can access them when you pass away. Even worse, the method most people might consider, putting them in a safe-deposit box will often backfire (see below). Here are some possible options when considering how to keep track of your passwords and other sensitive information:

  • Do Not Use Safe-Deposit Boxes: Ironically, most people might think the best option is the safe-deposit box. After all, it's been used for generations to safely store important items and information. The problem is, many banks will not allow access to the box until the will is probated. This means if important information needed to probate the will in the first place is in the box, you're caught in a classic catch-22. Safe-deposit boxes should generally only be used to store items that won't be needed until long after you've passed away.
  • Using a Safe at Home: This is probably the easiest method to understand and follow. After you've compiled a list of important access information (see below for a general list), store it in a secure safe in your home. This provides two basic benefits: first, it's relatively easy, and second, you can tell if your security information has been compromised. Combinations for the safe can be stored with an attorney.
  • Using Password Storing Services: There are an increasing amount of online services that offer safe, secure storage for all of your information and passwords. Given the relatively new status of these services and the fact that all online information is inherently at risk, however, this is probably not the most secure option.
  • Master Passwords and Password Splitting: Some people favor a password splitting scheme, where half of a master-password (that gives access to all of your passwords) is given to one party (e.g., a spouse), and the other half is given to your lawyer. To account for the possibility that you and your spouse die at the same time, the spouse's half also goes to a second lawyer with instructions on contacting the first lawyer. The benefit here is that no one, not your lawyer and not even your spouse, has access to your information. The only real pitfall to this approach is that some may find it too complex.
  • Don't Get Too Creative: Finally, consider coming up with a scheme that works for you and your family. Do not, however, get too creative. Any plan has to deal with all possibilities, and if you miss even one, the entire scheme may fail (e.g., if you and your spouse die in the above example and no contingency is built into the system).

Make a List of Each Service and Its Access Information

Finally, once you have come up with your strategy for storing important passwords and access information, compile a list of important services and corresponding access information (logins, passwords, access keys, PINs, etc). Common things to consider putting on your list are:

  • Computers
  • Email accounts
  • Bank and financial accounts
  • Cell phones, PDAs, other electronic devices
  • Online services (online storage, records, pictures, etc)
  • Important contact information
  • Locations and access information to safes, safe-deposit boxes, alarms, etc

It is also recommended that you include a description next to each item. For instance, a description of the assets held in an account, or the types of documents found in an online storage location. Lastly, remember to periodically update this information as the means of access and your passwords may change over time.

See also:


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Next Steps

Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to help you ensure that your loved ones are cared for and your wishes are honored.

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