Serving as the executor of my parents’ estates has brought to mind things I wish my parents had done and things I’m glad they did.
My Estate Tips
Here are my tips from this experience:
- Make a will! You should have a will if you have kids, property, or a life partner of any sort, or if you want to control who gets what, or if you can fend off potential squabbles among your heirs. Find at least two people who’ll agree to be your executors: a primary and at least one backup. Sign your will in front of a notary and two witnesses who won’t inherit anything. Make a new will if you’ve had family status changes since the last one, or if your kids were minors in the last will but they’re not minors now.
- Register your will with your county Register of Wills. It doesn’t cost much, and it becomes an official copy your executor can retrieve readily when you’re gone.
- Gather your records so your executor can sift through them. Even a few clearly marked boxes like “Insurance Policies” or “Tax Returns” will be better than nothing, even if the boxes are a disorganized mess internally.
- List your accounts (bank accounts, loans and mortgages, investment accounts, utilities, credit cards, phone, Internet, cable, etc.) so your executor can handle notifications, final payments, and so on.
- List your insurance policies so your executor can file the appropriate claims.
- List your main assets like property, vehicles, and valuables: not just what they are, but also where they are and how to retrieve them.
- List anyone who should be notified of your demise. This could include healthcare providers, accountants, your kids’ schools, religious organizations, clubs, relatives, and friends. You could list newspapers where you want your death notice to appear.
- List your social networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any other site where your executor would need to announce your death or close down an account. More on this below.
- Important: Protect the above lists. Don’t open yourself up to identity theft. There’ll be a lot of PII (Personally Identifiable Information), maybe some PHI (Protected Health Information), and certainly some TMI (Too Much Information, stuff that most people shouldn’t know about you). Don’t send sensitive info by email. (Note that your bank won’t email your account details to you, even with your permission.) Maybe you’ve got a fireproof, waterproof safe or lockbox at your house where you can store paper copies. Maybe your executor has one. Maybe you’re using a secure web-based storage site where you can keep these things (more info below). Check with your bank to see if you can let your executor get to your safe deposit box. You might be tempted to store your lists on the electronic storage media du jour, like CDs or USB flash drives, but you may well outlive the currently popular storage media.
- Important: Tell your executors where to find the above stuff. Your executor will need to know where to get all this info.
Because I’m also an IT kind of guy who’s also steeped in information security matters, I offer some technological tips below.
Social Dying: the Social Networking Sites of a Deceased Person
In general, contact the site’s customer service to find out what your options are. Typically, you’d need to provide evidence of death (copy of a death certificate or a newspaper death notice) and evidence of your right to speak for the deceased person (letter of adminstration identifying you as the executor). Some sites will just close down the account, some will grant you access, and some – like Facebook – will let you create a memorial page.
Google can give you access to a deceased person’s Gmail account. Google makes no promises, though, so there may be situations in which they won’t grant you access. Talk to Google’s customer service people if you also want to get access to the person’s other Google services (Google Docs and so on).
Yahoo‘s terms of service says “Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.”
Storing Your Important Details Online (Or Not)
A secure, Internet-based location for your valuable information is certainly tempting. You can get to it from anywhere you have web access, and you can tell your executor how to get to it if you pass away. However, consider two things. First, who’ll live longer, you or the online service? If you expect to be around for another 30 years, for example, will the online service be around that long? (Go ask deathclock.com how long you might live.) Note that if the company goes into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it immediately ceases operations, without advance notice to you, and all its assets are turned over to a court-appointed trustee for auction. Second, the companies providing these services aren’t banks. While it’s in their best interests to protect your data, a number of these online services are new or small companies that might not have lots of resources to put into data security. They offer up a secure web site, which is a good thing, but they might not have the staff time or the facilities for the best prevention, detection, and remediation of security breaches. “Encryption better than a bank’s” is a somewhat misleading advertising claim.
But if you take this path, you can go with an “online undertaker” service, or you can set up a more general cloud-based storage system.
Three “online undertaker” services appear to own the market: Legacy Locker, Asset Lock, and DeathSwitch. These services let you store the kind of info I listed above, including lists of online accounts and passwords. When the “inheritance” is triggered, the beneficiaries get access to what you stored for them. As I mentioned earlier, notifying an online service can result in the account being closed down and the contents deleted. These online undertaker services, however, simply let your beneficiaries use your accounts as they are now.
Legacy Locker has free and paid services. You can identify beneficiaries for each “asset” you store. Your executor follows the notification process, and then your beneficiaries receive what you stored for them.
Asset Lock lets you store the same kinds of info. Notification is different, because a number of “Recipients” (you choose the number) must log in and confirm that you’ve died. That method doesn’t sit so well with me, because nobody is presenting direct evidence of your death, and it works only if the requisite number of recipients are savvy enough and responsible enough to carry out the task.
Deathswitch takes yet another approach. You store the same sorts of info, and you tell it how often to check on you (daily, yearly, whatever). It checks on you by sending you email asking you to verify you’re still there. If you don’t respond, it sends out the notices you established previously. What if you stop using that email address? What if it gets spam filtered? What if you go away for a while (vacation, sabbatical, coma) and miss out on the messages? You’ll get a notice too, but it seems it’s up to you to notice the notice, and log in to Deathswitch to say you’re not actually dead. The problem is that if you weren’t seeing the check-in messages in the first place, you probably won’t see the notice that announces your death.
By the way, there’s another such service called Slightly Morbid, but I get certificate errors when I visit the site. Bzzzt! Next contestant!
Plain old document storage sites like Dropbox and Google Docs let you store files, but there’s no mechanism for sending files to your beneficiaries. Instead, you might provide your executor with your login information so your executor can find whatever lists and instructions you’ve stored there.
In Summary: Make a Will
But really, my main piece of advice here is to make a will, and register it so there’s an official copy in a known place.