New Year’s Resolution: Make Information Accessible, for Those Who Survive You

Hey, let’s talk about death again! This is an anxiety-producing topic, and I am sorry for that.

My hope is to share some things you can do, now, to make a hard thing, less hard. Today I want to talk about some considerations related specifically to paper records (because we’re analog aficionados here), and to the challenges of accessing account and app information after someone dies.

If you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, making important information more accessible for your loved ones is one with a lot of impact. Also, silver lining: some of this may save you time and money, for yourself.

I’ve talked about death previously, addressing things like why you really need a will, and listing some resources and services to help you organize your records.

First, the disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an accountant, I’m not a security engineer. My opinions here come from working in a field where I routinely see the Kafka-esque admin situations that many survivors deal with, after a death.

On Death, Documents, and Online Accounts: As Personal Tech Increases, Critical Shared Home Information Decreases

I love technology as well as paper-based things, but as tech increases, shared information decreases.

Especially in the home.

People who document things scrupulously at work, go home and set up a smart home without documenting how to use it.

If my father dies before my mother, without printing out — on paper — simple, tested, instructions for how she can operate the heating and the lights, my sainted mother is going to be freezing in the dark.

Okay, okay — most likely, she’ll move in with one of us until somebody can figure out how to turn on the house. (And this reminds me, I have to call him again and say, “Did you write up that house stuff for us yet?” …and come to think of it, I have to write up some house stuff for my own family… )

I’m also talking about the frustrations I’ve had, in trying to share an online news account with my husband. Thirty years ago, we could get the Washington Post and the New York Times on our doorstep, and share these physical newspapers over the kitchen table.

But now, I have to argue on a yearly basis with customer service reps to restore my access to our allegedly shared “household” news account (for which we pay extra!). Why, when the subscription updates, does my email seem to fall off their radar? Why does this happen every year?

Or maybe I’ll just ask my husband to hand me his device for an hour or so each day, so I can read the “newspaper” as well.

We also had a credit card number stolen, and had to change information on lots of online accounts.

These things are all irritating.

But this is NOTHING compared to the admin wrangling and information silos that happen after someone dies.

The Admin Wrangling When Someone Dies is Exponentially Worse, Than Having to Update Your Accounts After Your Information Is Stolen

I’ve done both: dealt with admin after a death, and updated accounts after a credit card number was stolen. The red tape after a death is overwhelming, precisely at the time one is least able emotionally to deal with it.

If you have ever had to change passwords on accounts or update your payment information, think right now about the accounts you have; and now imagine that someone else will have to change or cancel EVERY single one of them, after you die.

Furthermore, that person will have to do it without being able to prove that they are you. (They will have to prove that you are dead; which is a process some organizations string out for several months, with many demands for all kinds of documents.)

With the advent of apps and streaming subscription services, the red tape for survivors has gotten so much worse.

When my grandparents died in the early 2000s, they did not have social media accounts. They didn’t subscribe to Spotify, or Netflix, or even own cell phones or computers.

Allison Engel, whose husband recently died, wrote about what it’s like in the 2020s to deal with this:

“Face recognition, voice recognition and fingerprint recognition speed up access when someone’s alive but present tremendous barriers for survivors trying to wind down accounts. When I sign in to my late husband Scott’s password manager and investment accounts, access codes are sent to his phone. Despite many tries, I find I cannot change that phone number. This means keeping Scott’s phone active, a needless expense.”

This was particularly a needless expense when she had to work — for months — to actually get the pension her husband had set up for her. (It was supposed to continue to go to her after he died; but… it didn’t.)

Engel also had great difficulty getting access to their supposedly shared credit card account:

“If you think you and your spouse share a credit card, because each of you has a card with your name on it and the same account number, guess again. That card belongs only to the person who applied for the account. Credit card companies are alerted to a death quickly by the Social Security Administration, and will freeze a survivor’s ability to view the account online. Providing a paper statement seems logical, but our bank’s representative told me, “Once you’ve opted to get online statements, our policy is you cannot go back to paper statements.” It took six full months of begging to the bank’s “Deceased Management Team” (actual name) to be mailed statements for the months following Scott’s death. And it wasn’t easy to cancel some recurring charges.”

Read the whole thing (if you can access it, that is… if you have an account…).

Things You Can Do Now, To Make a Hard Thing Slightly Less Hard for Your Loved Ones

For now: IF you currently get paper statements for credit cards, utilities, and banking, for the sake of those who must go through your accounts after you die (and someone will), do not switch to online statements. Paper statements might be the easiest way those who survive you, can find out what accounts you had, and what subscriptions will appear, maybe almost a year later, on your credit card. Most likely, they will be locked out of access to your online utility and financial accounts, and will have to plead with customer service, account by account by account.

Consider setting up your trusted person’s (partner, executor) cell phone number, and email address, as back-ups to receive access codes. And keep this up-to-date. And yeah, this opens up a whole ‘nother can of privacy and security issues, if a trusted person is not actually trustworthy. So, your call. But with joint accounts you already have, this might also help with access if someone’s phone is lost.

Use a password manager, for bank accounts, investment accounts, Social Security. And: give your trusted person a way to access the master password.

Very few people make a legacy plan for personal devices. Make sure your trusted person is able to get into your laptop, your tablet, your phone. If you unlock these now by using your fingerprint or facial recognition, how would someone access these devices after you’re gone?

Keep a list of your app subscriptions, music and entertainment subscriptions. Do this for each credit card, and keep it updated. Bonus: this might save you a LOT of money, as you realize what you’ve actually subscribed to, over the years.

If your important documents are digital, organize them so that someone who is not you, can find them. Keeping your files in digital form is not necessarily easier for someone else to sift through, than old school boxes of paper. Run some searches for your digitized account statements and legal documents. How easily did you find what someone else would actually need? Could you even open that old file, or did the software go extinct? (PDFs and plain text files are our friends.) Would your stressed-out spouse think of the same search terms you just used? How would someone who is not you find those files?

I didn’t organize my important digital files because I had too much trouble finding things. I organized them because I know my husband and kids would have had trouble finding them, among the thirty thousand cat pictures.

Make sure you can put your physical hands on these physical documents, now: birth and marriage certificates, adoption documents, passports, divorce documents, documents that proved military service, name change documents, Social Security cards. And keep these documents in a safe* in your home, not in a safe deposit box in a bank. People lose safe deposit keys. Banks close on the weekends. Banks might require you to have the very documents you’ve stored in the safe deposit box, to prove that you are legally able to access it. Don’t get caught in that endless loop. If you cannot lay your physical hands on these paper documents, order copies now. It may take several weeks to get them, but better to do it when it’s not already a crisis, right?

When someone dies: order at least six copies of the death certificate. We did this when my mother-in-law died. Lots of companies and organizations will require a physical, original copy of the death certificate.

Engel had to send an original death certificate to Expedia, through whom her husband had once booked a flight.

She also had to hand-deliver another original death certificate to Best Buy, to cancel her husband’s Geek Squad subscription.

They would not accept copies or scans or emailed documents. They wanted physical, paper, court-verifiable, originals.

Lots of other organizations will want them, too.

A Special Note to App Developers and Providers of Subscription Services

I know some readers here create wonderful apps and services. Thank you for reading, and thank you for making some amazing things that truly make our lives better. For some of you, I am one of your satisfied customers. I love analog, and I love tech, too.

But let me ask you this: If I meet my end on the dangerous roads around here, what would my poor grieving husband have to do, to access my accounts with you?

What would a survivor have to do, to stop getting charged or billed by you? To unsubscribe from emails or texts from you? To export data — Photos? Writing? — you’ve got on your service, that a survivor might want or need?

Have you got a way that people can register more than one email and more than one phone number with you? If those backup numbers aren’t the default, will they still actually work?

Have you got a way to make someone a beneficiary or a co-owner of the account?

Do you offer plans that allow more than one person to step up as admin?

How are you honoring your customers’ very real needs for security and privacy, while also responding with compassion to those who need to work with you after a customer dies, or becomes incapacitated?

And: is it easy to find your company’s contact information, when someone has to do these hard things?

You’ve probably already thought of these things; I’m asking you to think through it once more, especially if you’ve updated a lot since you set these systems up.

None of this that I am talking about today, is easy.

But getting these things in order is one New Year’s project which will also be a gift.

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References

Engel, A. (2022) ‘Perspective | After a loved one dies, red tape adds to the grief’, Washington Post, 22 November. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2022/11/20/death-red-tape-bureaucracy-finances/ (Accessed: 15 December 2022).

I wrote elsewhere about services to help you organize your personal documents before crisis hits. URL: https://www.annahavron.com/blog/hey-lets-talk-about-death

Notes

* When you keep documents in a home safe, especially one that is fire-proof, it will also lock moisture inside, from humidity. My relative in a sultry climate had to replace a passport because it was so moldy after being stored in an airtight (and humid, inside) safe. Open the door of the safe regularly to air it out. (I remember to do this by storing a backup drive that I update regularly; and I air out the safe then.)

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