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What Happens to Your Passwords When You Die?

Emergency access to your online accounts using a password manager

If you’re anything like me and most other humanoids living in this digital age, you probably have just under a billion website login username and password combinations. Somehow you keep it all together (thank the Lord for password recovery emails). But what happens to all those passwords when you die?

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The Password Problem

All your login details are constantly changing as websites upgrade their security features. Some make you change your password every so often. Some require an email as the user name, others just a 6+ character ID.

There is no way to make all your login details the same, and even if you could it would be a huge security risk.

I used to use a home-rigged system involving a single password for most sites. There would be lots of little variations for when passwords needed to be changed, such as adding an underscore and/or number sign, changing upper and lowercase, adding or changing numbers to the end or beginning, etc. I would also write down login details in a little notepad for more complicated or rarely used sites.

Sound familiar?

It shouldn’t really need to be said, but I’ll say it anyways. A password system like that is completely insecure.

Did I have the same or similar passwords for a lot of sites? Check. (Hackers run programs that easily figure out all the variations we use to try to make things more difficult. Once they figure out one, you’re toast.)

Did I have login details written out in a notepad that anyone could access? Check. (Even though I tried to keep it secure, I had to pull it out all the time so it was easy to get lazy and leave it lying around.)

Were my passwords easy to hack? Check. (Because I made up my own passwords, I would naturally use common patterns. We all do this, even when we think we do not. These patterns can be figured out by intelligent thieves.)

So I had a password problem, and I suspect that you have or at some point had a similar problem.

Death: Doubling the Password Problem

While on the one hand a home-rigged password system is totally insecure, for normal people who might someday need to make sense out of your system it can be a huge obstacle.

When you die, or if you were to become incapacitated, at some point someone will need access to your secure information. They might need to set up an autoresponder for your business email, or they might need access to your financial information to pay hospital bills or make funeral arrangements.

It could be as simple as canceling a Netflix subscription. But if no one has access to your account, ending a simple magazine or cable subscription can become needlessly difficult. You may need to send a copy of the death certificate and/or fill out forms in order to gain access, or cancel by way of taking over the bank account and freezing assets.

How much easier would it be if they could just login, click “my account,” then “cancel services”? If someone has access to your passwords, all this becomes much easier.

Of course you need to keep everything legal and above board. So you will want to follow the proper procedures for financial, legal, and insurance matters.

But there are so many other little things that need to be wrapped up when someone dies. This list has well over fifty common accounts, all those routine bills that are likely on auto payment. You can try to contact all those companies with a copy of the death certificate in hand, but it would be so much easier to just log in and cancel the account.

That is, if someone has access to your passwords after you die.

Managing your online legacy, accounts, and passwords after you die

What Happens to Your Passwords After You Die?

So what actually happens to your passwords when you die? Chances are, if you have the password problem I’ve described above, the answer is that they simply sit there, unused and inaccessible. Just one more hurdle for the person who has to go through your affairs when you are gone.

But there is an easier way.

Get a Password Manager

Getting a password manager was one of the best choices I ever made concerning time-saving and organizational tools.

It used to be that I would pull out a notebook, check it, find out that I had updated the password last time but didn’t update the notebook, then I would go through the whole “Can’t remember your password?” routine.

Click link, enter user ID.

Wrong user ID.

Enter email.

Send password. 

Check email inbox.

Refresh.

Refresh.

Check spam.

Refresh.

Get email, click link.

New password.

Write new password in notebook.

Doh! Needed a special character.

Cross out old-new password, write in new-new password.

Aaaaaaand…. in. **sigh of relief**

Annoying as heck. But once I signed up for a password manager, this was gone. Passwords would be automatically stored, easily updated, and, perhaps best of all, generated for me as super-complex and unhackable. I could toss the old crusty notebook, update my completely insecure old passwords, and need to remember just one master password.

The Best Password Managers

The top two password management systems, Dashlane and LastPass, are very similar.

DASHLANE

What happens to your password when you die?

What it is: Password management system for all your online accounts.

Free option? Yes.

What it does: Securely stores all your login information for all the websites you visit. With one master password to remember, you log in to Dashlane and the service will automatically fill in your login details when you visit each site. Each time you create an account with a website, Dashlane can generate a super-secure password, save it, and recall it whenever you need to login again.

Other features: Notification whenever there is a suspected security breach on any website with which you have an account. Auto-change passwords in a single click. Syncs your passwords across devices – desktop, laptop, tablet, phone.

When you die: Dashlane has an “Emergency” feature that allows you share all or some of your passwords with one or more emergency contacts. The way this works is that you set a “waiting period” after the emergency contact requests access. This waiting period can be two days or three months – it’s up to you. If you are still around and don’t want them to have access, just decline the request. But if you do not decline the request in the allotted time (i.e., if you have died), then, once the waiting period expires, your emergency contact will have access to whatever secure information you have shared with them.

Cost: Free for a single device. $3.33 per month for premium, which includes unlimited devices and some other bonuses.

Emergency feature available with free account: Yes.

Get Dashlane free here.

LASTPASS

How to use LastPass to manage your online passwords after you die

What it is: Password management system for all your online accounts.

Free option? Yes.

What it does: Pretty much exactly the same as Dashlane. Securely stores all your login information for all the websites you visit. With one master password to remember, you log in to LastPass and the service will automatically fill in your login details when you visit each site. Each time you create an account with a website, LastPass can generate a super-secure password, save it (or save one you create), and recall it whenever you need to login again. My one quibble with LastPass is that the saving featuring can be a bit buggy, sometimes resulting in multiple passwords saved.

Other features: Notification whenever there is a suspected security breach on any website with which you have an account. Auto-change passwords in a single click. Syncs your passwords across devices – desktop, laptop, tablet, phone.

When you die: LastPass has an “Emergency Access” feature that allows you share all or some of your passwords with one or more emergency contacts. Simply list your emergency contacts and then set a “waiting period” for after the emergency contact requests access. This waiting period can be 24 hours or six months – it’s up to you. If you are still around and don’t want them to have access, just decline the request. But if you do not decline the request in the allotted time (i.e., if you have died), then, once the waiting period expires, your emergency contact will have access to whatever secure information you have shared with them.

Cost: Free for a single user. $2 per month for premium, which includes unlimited devices and some other bonuses.

Emergency feature available with free account: Yes.

Get LastPass free here.

How to Use a Password Manager for Your Legacy Information

To use a password manager for your legacy information, start by signing up for an account and downloading the application. Once you run it and set up your “master” password, you can begin adding sites to your secure digital vault.

Ideally you will want to organize the websites as you add them. In Dashlane, these are called “categories,” while in LastPass they are called “folders.”

Either way, the point is the same: Put work-related sites in one, and set one or more business associates or employees as the emergency contacts.

Place your personal sites in another folder/category, and set up your spouse or a close family member as the emergency contact for that folder.

If you have written a will and have your end-of-life arrangements in order, you may want to create a “legacy” or “when I die” folder and grant your lawyer or executor access for those sites.

Make sure that you set the length of time for emergency access long enough that a disgruntled employee or dishonest lawyer cannot access your information while you are away on vacation. At the same time, for those you trust completely, you will want to set the time as short as is reasonable to make things as easy as possible for them.

The password manager will send your emergency contact(s) an email notification. However you will probably also want to personally contact each person to explain what you are doing. They will need to download the application themselves and create an account if they don’t already have one. Make sure you verify that the emergency contact’s access and setup is complete, otherwise it will all be for naught.

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What happens to your online passwords after you die?

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