In a recent article called "Safeguard Your Financial Life," (free trial required) I wrote about how to choose a good password. "Good" in that instance referred to a password that a cyber-crook couldn't easily guess just by, for example, combining your children's names or knowing your birthday. But what happens when your password is too good?
Should one of life's emergencies (your sudden infirmity) or tragedies (your sudden death) strike, will your loved ones know how to access your email, online bank accounts, or other password-protected accounts? In many cases, the answer is no. And "no" will leave them scrambling at the very least, if not schlepping to a lawyer's office to legally convince companies to give them access to your accounts.
Think for a moment about the many online activities in which you take part that also require a password (don't worry, we won't make you fess up to all of them). If your loved ones need to access even just a small portion of them to manage your estate (or try to figure out who "Candy" is and why you left her $10,000 in your will), their job will be that much harder if they're expected to guess the access code to entry.
The problems are compounded when your passwords vary; sometimes sites have different password requirements that dictate a minimum length or require a combination of numbers and letters. It's not that it's impossible to crack the code to someone's passwords; it's just that it takes time and energy, as well as leading to possible costly delays in settling your estate. Online service providers may require such documents as a death certificate, power of attorney over the email account, other proof of relationship, or even a court order before supplying heirs with access to your accounts after your demise. So while you should still choose a combination that foils the average hack, you also want to be sure that your top-secret codes are recorded somewhere your heirs can locate them.
- Still choose a complicated password, made up of symbols, numbers, and letters of varying cases. You'll want to foil potential thieves, even while you're ensuring access to those you've selected.
- Treat your computer files, emails, iTunes downloads, and other electronic media as property that you bequeath in your will. This may afford them greater protection under the law.
- Make sure that you have a paper copy of your will signed, dated, and witnessed.
- Designate who may have access to your computer, but don't include your passwords in your will because this becomes a public document as soon as it is filed. Instead, include the passwords as part of an estate planning document that is kept somewhere safe and secure (like a safety deposit box).
- Remember that each time your passwords are updated or changed, you'll need to update your estate planning documents as well.
This is just one small part of planning your estate. For a step-by-step guide , take a free trial to GreenLight today. In addition to our Plan Your Estate tutorial, you'll get access to our monthly newsletter (and all back issues), more than a hundred personal finance articles, dedicated discussion boards and blogs, and more.
Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. To get your money and relationship questions answered, send her an email .