If you have web pages, a Facebook or Google+ account or even if you just throw something up on Twitter now and then, you own digital assets. This very page that you are reading is a digital asset. It has value, both because it adds to my reputation as a writer and because it has the potential to create income.
It's not just money, though. It's also history - not important to historians, perhaps, but possibly of interest to my children and beyond.
My father's mother had an interesting life. Among other things, she and her husband once made a mad dash to safety on horseback to escape approaching rebels in Costa Rica. She kept diaries for most of her life, but decided to throw them all in the trash when she was in her nineties because "nobody would be interested".
I was astonished when she told me that, but it was too late - it was all gone. She was probably right in that much of her writings might not have been of great interest, and I do remember that her handwriting was extraordinarily difficult to read, but I still feel that this was a loss to our family and I wish that her diaries could have been saved.
Of course saving musty old books has its own issues. Which family member should keep them? How should they be preserved from mildew, insects, mice and general decomposition? Ink fades, paper becomes yellowed.. and memories fade too, so personal items can lose their link in family histories. I have a beautiful old crystal decanter that came from some long forgotten ancestor - I think I remember my father telling me that this person was a ship captain, but I don't remember any name or family lineage accompanying that information.
Digital assets have a rather unique characteristic in this regard: copies can be easily and freely given to anyone who wants them. Magnetic and optical media does decompose also, but it can be copied fresh - digital writing can be maintained for as long as someone cares to do so.
Digital assets like this are also among the most personal things we can pass on: what is more personal than a person's own writing?
In the case of web pages and social media accounts, what is most important is the passwords needed to access and control them. If my children wished to continue receiving income from these and other pages I have created, or simply desire to preserve them, they need to be able to access the pages.
How can you keep your passwords safe to protect your online assets and yet make them quickly available when needed?
Hidden in plain site
Prior to the Internet, my wife and I kept important papers in a safety deposit box, but we also had a home safe. The combination to that safe was actually posted on a wall in the same room as the safe, but it was in code, using numbers only our immediate family would know.
For example, the code said that you could obtain the first needed number by taking the two digit year that we were married and subtracting 4. The second could be found by knowing how old our oldest daughter would be on December 17th, 1997. Another asked for the street number of an Aunt and so on. Any family member could decode the combination fairly easily, but a thief would need much more information than they would be likely to have at hand.
You can easily do something similar with passwords and a book. Write letters (or short sequences of letters) in the margins of a book on pages that can be located from a code written on the inside cover. Write nonsense letters or phrases on other pages. Those who can decode the proper pages can assemble the password (or passwords).
If you feel the need for more obscurity, that password can be a master password that gives access to the others.
Your passwords should never be the same across all your digital domain. There are simple methods to create unique, yet easily memorized passwords for any number of websites: see my "Easy to remember unique passwords" for details.
Online death notice
You might simply want to release this information to your heirs only upon your death. That can be done with a will, though if you do that, it would be smart to make it indirect, where the will gives some never changing piece of information like the combination to a safe or the name of that book where you put that code. That eliminates the need to update the will every time you make some change or addition to your digital possessions.
A will can take time, however. In some cases, you might want your inheritors to have certain critical information more quickly.
There are websites designed to release information upon your demise. The obvious problem with any such service is first not releasing anything until you actually are gone. However, there are more concerns: many a website has been hacked in the past; trusting all your digital assets to another website might be very foolish. There is also the not unlikely circumstance that the site itself may not be alive itself - businesses do fail and close down.
For those reasons, I'd say that anyone who considers using one of these should use them at most indirectly as suggested with the will. Any information released should not be enough to give instantaneous access to anything. It might, for example, only contain the location of the book that contains the master code, and even that location might be coded: "It's one of your mother's favorite books and it is on the bookshelf that came from Grandpa's house". Such extremes of secrecy may seem silly, but if you are using one of these services, you have to understand that a release of information to unknown people is at least possible.
Are you gone? Online death notification
How would the holding site know that it is time to release your information?
A site like Deathswitch works by sending periodic email to you and expecting you to reply. You control the frequency of the email and how much inattention on your part is required to trigger the switch.
Obviously this is far too simplistic for any truly serious release of information. You might be unable to respond due to power failures, temporary incapacitation or just because you hit the lottery and ran off for a tour of the world and temporarily forgot about all this morbid estate planning stuff.
However, a service like this might be useful to notify one trusted person that something may be amiss and that they should be checking up on you, perhaps to take further action should you not be off on that whirlwind vacation.
It could have other uses too, such as departing insults, post-death confessions and the like, but anyone contemplating such use should think carefully about the possibility of premature release.
With the services that allow you to attach documents, these can function as virtual or online safe deposit boxes, which may even be able to be customized so that specific recipients receive specific documents.
Third Person Verification
Sites like Slightly Morbid and Legacy Locker don't release anything until one or more people who you have designated have verified your death. They may also require more direct proof, such as a legal death certificate. At the extreme end, the only advantage these offer over a will is that they are definitely designed to release digital information while your lawyers offices may not be fully prepared to do that. This will probably change in years to come; I would not be at all surprised to see lawyers tying wills into such services in the near future.
A simple site like the DeathSwitch method above might be used as your trigger to someone to begin activity with a site like these that requires more verification. It might be used to tell them where to find the needed information to set off actions at those sites that demand more proof of your actual passing.
Value for you?
These services do have potential value as it may give you more control over what happens when you die. Aside from the obvious speed advantages over waiting for a will, these also get the information to the recipients in digital form, which might be much more useful and convenient than photocopies of a will.
The ability to tailor specific messages and or attachments to specific people is also more private than a will. Some of those attachments may not be suitable for a will, either for reasons of privacy or simply because they are personal remembrances.
Think of these as digital safe deposit boxes - a place where you can give easy access to people who may need it after you are gone. While very convenient, they are slightly less safe than their brick and steel real world equivalents.
It's also easier for you to keep digital information updated and timely. However, you really do need to understand that there are dangers of early release, either through accident, theft or fraud. I would be very careful with anything I trusted to a service like this. Again, I recommend indirection: the service sends information about how to locate what is really needed to access the assets.
These "electronic wills" are adjuncts and not substitutes for real wills and estate planning. Do not rely upon these as your only legacy to your heirs.
In fact, you don't know who cares. While your children may have little interest in your Facebook bleating, their children or grandchildren might have great interest. I would love to be able to read the musings of my long dead ancestors - perhaps not every word, as in the case of my grandmothers diaries, but I definitely have interest. She should not have presumed to know what her descendants would and would not want to read and you should not either.
Make sure that those who you pass these assets to understand that also. If they truly have no interest, impress upon them that keeping the assets safe for some future reader is important and only a small burden.
See also Last Words.
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© 2011-08-29 Anthony Lawrence