Mankind is a species in thrall to passwords. No password, no bank account. No password, no email. No password, no photo library. People, pass on your passwords!

Passwords control our access to money, communication and memories and we are encouraged to keep them super-secure.  They’re designed to be a nuisance, literally to make it harder for us to do everyday things like buy bread or read emails from our friends.  That’s why systems build in workarounds – the first time you use a bank card, you have to input the dreaded PIN.  From then on, though, you can usually just tap your card on a reader.

The frustration and, occasionally, utter horror of forgetting a password or PIN is a familiar feature of modern life.  Imagine what it’s like to need a set of passwords which you never knew in the first place.  That’s the situation increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in when loved ones die or lose mental capacity and someone has to look after their digital world for them.

It can be all but impossible to access parts of their ‘digital legacy’ if they haven’t made some simple preparations.  A legacy which can include both sentimental things such as family photos and things with real value, such as cryptocurrency.

Respect my authority

If you have to take over someone’s digital world, or if you want someone to be able to take over your digital world at some point, two things are needed: access and authority. Access is, in theory, straightforward. That’s about making sure someone trusted can access your digital accounts  when the need arises.  It’s why you pass on your passwords.

Firstly, you need to identify a trusted person – it might be a loved one, or a lawyer, for example.  Then let them know how they will be able to get your passwords.   You also need to let them know all the digital accounts you hold.  You may have several photo libraries, an investment account, a crypto hustle and three email addresses, for example.  Including a gambling account containing winnings and a PayPal to service your Amazon habits. Plus some points on your store loyalty cards. Oh, and bank and credit card accounts.

You may have them written in a notebook (no, it’s not secure but it is better than nothing as long as you keep that notebook safe), or stored in a digital password vault.  These vaults, or password managers, are easy to use, allow you instant access to passwords and, most importantly, secure.

When you use a password manager, there’s no need to remember convoluted passwords for your various accounts.  The manager can store all your passwords. It can generate random new passwords and, crucially, help pass on your passwords to a trusted person if you die or lose mental capacity.

Dead obvious

It’s important having someone to trust with your passwords in the event of your death. It’s as important to have someone with access and authority to them should you become incapacitated.  An accident or illness could leave you in a coma, or with brain damage, without the ability to carry out even basic digital tasks.  Your loves ones would want to step in – perhaps to release funds for your care, or to save copies of favourite photos.  Unless someone knows what digital accounts you hold, where would they even start?

Once, there would have been a paper-trail to financial accounts and memberships. These days paper bank statements and old-school membership cards are endangered species.  With access to your email, they might be able to hunt for clues, but better to use a password manager that gives them access to all your important digital accounts.

If you think it’s not important because you’ll be dead or incapacitated anyway, just ponder what it would be like if you were the one left trying to piece together a digital puzzle for an incapacitated loved one.

RIP social media

Don’t forget the importance of granting authority to your trusted digital guardian.

Sites such as Facebook and Google have options that let you pass on limited control of your accounts after you die or after a particular period of inactivity – for example, allowing an authorised person to pin a notice on your account saying you’ve passed on.

Other sites such as Instagram and Twitter require families to request that your accounts should be ‘memorialised’.

If you own a business, don’t forget to ensure that relevant digital accounts are passed on as appropriate too to a suitable person.

Appoint someone as Power of Attorney over your finances – this will make dealing with institutions such as banks much, much more straightforward.

Best of all, do all of the above. It’s not as time consuming as it sounds, and it will almost certainly prevent a lot of unnecessary grief, frustration and expense.

Digital schmidgital, m’lud

Be warned: the law has failed to keep up with the huge changes wrought by the digitisation of our lives, and that’s a problem for all of us.

Research by the Law Society shows fewer than 10 per cent of people consider digital assets in their will.  Even fewer are likely to include digital assets when setting up a POA.

The Law Commission is currently preparing recommendations around digital assets, while academics have called for the law to be made fit for the 21st century. In the meantime, responsibility for your own digital health rests with you.

Don’t doom yourself to becoming a digital zombie, cursed by undead online accounts that no one can control. Pass on your passwords and get POA sorted now, before it’s too late.

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