Who will clear your internet history when you die?
And other messes you’ll leave behind for your family and friends
Death is messy and not just in the way you think. All the things you’ve put off doing or tried to ignore will inevitably get dumped on those you leave behind – a spouse, adult children, or a best friend. While grieving your passing, they get the unfortunate chore of making your final arrangements, getting your finances in order, closing out all of your affairs, and settling your estate. On average, the process of picking up and sorting out this mess can take over 12 months to do.
Why are we so inconsiderate? With the slightest amount of effort, we could get prepared and leave a roadmap for our family and friends to follow. While you can’t help beyond the grave, there are a few simple things that you can do now to ease some of that burden.
Here are 5 things that you can do today to help minimize the mess left for your loved ones:
Gather your important documents
How long would it take to gather up your birth certificate, Social Security card, a final, signed copy of your will ( find out here if you need a will), your marriage certificate (or divorce decree), your discharge papers, tax returns, the title to your house and car, and your life insurance policy? Are they in your desk drawer, a box in the back of the closet, in a safety deposit box at your bank?
If you don’t know these answers off the top of your head, what chance does your family have of finding them without tearing the house apart? And, if they can’t find them, what are the consequences?
One of the easiest things you can do is gather all these important documents together in one place. Keep them under lock and key and tell your trusted family members where the files are located and where to find the key. At least once a year you should check and confirm that everything’s up-to-date, adding new versions for anything that has changed. If you can’t include the original document, drop in a piece of paper with the details about where the original can be found, such as “my attorney, Ms. Sue Everyone, has an original copy of my will and she can be reached at 555-1212.”
If you keep these files at home, I recommend keeping them in a fire and water resistant lockbox. While not impervious to all threats, it should help prevent light fire and water damage. You can get a small one that can sit at the back of the closet or under the bed for less than $60.
You can also put them in a safety deposit box at the bank but there are two big drawbacks. First, it will be more inconvenient to access these files when you need them. This means you are less likely to keep the documents up to date. Second, even if your family member has the key, the bank will not allow access to the deposit box unless the person was pre-authorized and on file with the bank.
To be authorized, it likely means that you and the person will have to go down to the bank together, fill out additional paperwork, and leave a signature card on file. If it sounds like a pain, it is. What happens if they can’t find the key or no one is authorized? All of your important documents will sit in that box until after the probate court issues a court order for their release. This is not a quick or easy process and can take many weeks or months to occur. So, if you are going to go the safety deposit box route, it’s also advisable to keep a photocopy of these documents somewhere more accessible AND to add one or more authorized users on your deposit box.
Itemize your financial accounts and other assets
How many financial accounts do you have? Can you even count them on both hands? Did you remember to include that old 401k that you never rolled over from your old employer?
Not that long ago every financial institution would send out paper statements every month or quarter, but not anymore. Unless your surviving family members have access to the email address associated with those accounts, they may never know about the electronic statements you’ve received. They could look at your old tax returns, but those will only identify those accounts that paid interest, dividends or had a taxable distribution (assuming they can even find your old tax returns, see #1 above).
Take ten minutes and list out all of your financial institutions. It doesn’t need to be fancy, you can just include the name and the type of account, for example, “National Bank of Springfield, savings and checking.” You can take the time to look up and include the account number but you don’t really need to. Your executor will be able to find what they need from the institution with your name and Social Security number (again, assuming you’ve left your Social Security card somewhere they can find, see #1 above).
In addition to your financial accounts, also include a list of any significant assets. This is especially important for any assets that are not easily located, like property you own in another state, belongings that you have lent to someone else, or intangible property (e.g., copyrights, trademarks, patents). Unless it is obvious, it is also important to include where these assets are located.
If you want to really go above and beyond you could do two additional things. One, include the names of any joint account holders and named beneficiaries on the account with the list. Two, when you are gathering your important documents (see #1 above) print off and include the latest statement with these files. You don’t need every statement, just one representative copy for each account.
Make a plan for your online accounts and electronic assets
I have at least 6 social media accounts, 7 different email addresses, 4 different devices with music and books, 2 different cloud-based storage accounts, 2 online photo accounts, an old gaming account, and countless other subscription services and online accounts. Do you have just as many?
According to the Pew Research Center, the typical (median) American adult is using three of eight major social media platforms. How much of your ‘life’ takes place online? Social media, email, file storage or cloud backup, online photo storage, gaming, electronic music and books, subscription services, and other online accounts. Would your family be able to access these if they needed or would they be lost forever?
Some platforms, like Facebook, give you the option to designate someone that is responsible for your account when you die. Where these options exist, take full advantage of them. However, unfortunately, many online accounts still don’t give you any options or only very limited control over what happens to your account.
Like with your financial accounts, you need an inventory of your important online accounts. You can leave information and instructions so that your preferences are honored – whether to close the account, transfer it to someone else, or even to post a final message. Remember, don’t write down your passwords with these inventory as that could create a security risk to your account.
Instructions for the care of any dependents
Who would raise your children if both parents passed away? You have a choice – you can decide or a judge will.
Thankfully, it is exceptionally rare that both parents predecease their children but it does happen. In fact, it happened in my family when my aunt and uncle were both killed in a car accident. Since they had not named a guardian in their will, a court decided on guardianship for their son (my cousin). Fights over guardianship often lead to conflict and ill feelings among the surviving family members. You don’t want your child or children to be stuck in the middle of that fight.
Naming a guardian for a child can only be done in a legally binding document. The easiest one to get is a last will and testament (which tackles a lot of other issues as well). Unfortunately, other than naming the guardian for the children and any financial resources that are left for the care of those children, most wills do not include any other details about how those children should be raised.
If you have instructions or preferences about how your children are raised, you will need to capture these details outside of your will. Those instructions or preferences can include anything from religion to education, or anything in between. While these preferences may not be legally binding in the same way as a will or trust, most guardians want to honor these instructions, whenever possible.
If you have a child with special needs, they may need lifelong care. It is important to make arrangements in advance for this care. Having a will is an important part of making these arrangements. In combination with other estate planning tools, a will can help ensure that they will have the financial and other support they will need when you are no longer there to provide it.
Announce your preference for your final arrangements
This is the one that everyone’s been avoiding. Let’s face it – no one really wants to spend time thinking about or talking about their death. That’s completely understandable.
If, however, you have preferences about your final arrangements – like whether to be buried, cremated or donated to science, whether any religious practices should be observed, or even what music should be played – you should share this information with the people that will be responsible for making these arrangements.
Of course, if you say nothing, they will do their best to make arrangements consistent with your wishes. But, you may be surprised how relieved they will be if you take the time to share any preferences that you have. They won’t be left guessing about what you want and can take comfort knowing that your last wishes were honored.
Communicating this information is especially important if you’ve already advance arrangements, like purchasing a family plot, or a pre-arranged or pre-paid funeral plan. The contract or other documents for these should be kept with your important documents (see #1 above) so that your family can find them quickly.
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IN REVIEW, here are the 5 simple things you can do right now to ease the burden on your family:
- Gather your important documents.
- Itemize your financial accounts and assets.
- Make a plan for your online accounts and electronic assets.
- Provide instructions for any dependents.
- Share your preference for your final arrangements.
You can do this yourself or use a system, like www.LastLtr.com, to help you gather, organize and securely share this information with your loved ones.
PS: Still worried about your internet history? Learn how to browse in private or incognito mode, you filthy animal. /s
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Dealing with the death of a family member or friend? Download this free step-by-step guide on what to do.
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There are hundreds of details that your family will need during this time of need that are not included in a will. It’s never too early to be prepared.
Would your family and friends know what to do if something happened to you? LastLtr.com helps you securely gather, organize and share all of the important details they will need. Each Last Letter is fully customized and contains all of the information and preferences that you want to include. You can create a Last Letter for yourself or for an aging parent.
If you have any feedback about this article, you can send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have questions about your legal rights, responsibilities or options, you should consult with an attorney in your state.