Digital Life Continuity Planning

Digital Life Continuity Planning

When my father died eight years ago, we didn’t know the password for his laptop. It was a problem because he kept some of his and my mom’s financial information on his hard drive and we couldn’t retrieve it. It took months of phone calls and thousands of dollars of legal fees to get his estate straightened out.

The world has changed considerably since my dad’s death and most of us have a digital life that parallels our physical one, with a wide range of online accounts and subscription services that we pay for on a monthly or annual basis. Most of those payments are automatic and will continue until your credit card expires or your bank account empties.

But what will happen to your family or dependents if you die or are physically incapacitated and they rely on your bank account or digital income? Do they know how to turn off the subscription services you don’t need anymore or how to access your bank accounts or online payment services, like Paypal? If you have a recurring digital revenue stream, will they be able to live off the income or sell the assets when you are gone?

In the old days, life was a lot simpler. No one had gig jobs on the side or a digital life separate from their online life. That’s no longer true. Take a look at the number of services you subscribe to or the income streams that you receive. Do your spouse or partner or kids know what they are, how much you spend per month, which ones are essential and how to turn the rest off? Do they know the passwords to your phone, email accounts, and computers? Do you store this information anywhere in a form that they can retrieve?

If you don’t document this information or give them easy access to it, this is probably a good time to write it all down and give them a copy. I use an encrypted password manager (LastPass) to keep track of the dozens of online services and payment accounts I use on a daily basis, which is very helpful for keeping track of things. It works across my two laptops, iPad, and phone as well which is most convenient.

LastPass also lets me share my passwords with family members if it becomes necessary, which can be helpful if you become incapacitated or kick the bucket. Lastpass also has Family Plans, so everyone in your family can take advantage of the service, share passwords in an emergency, and generate very strong passwords for all of the online services they use.

If you’re stuck at home and looking for things to do besides your taxes, documenting your passwords is one of those tasks that your family will appreciate if it’s necessary. While you may vanish from the face of the earth, your electronic life will carry on unless someone turns it off or merges it with their own.

Disclosure: The author purchased LastPass with his own funds and recommends it highly.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide and is 98% of the way through a second round. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.
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24 comments

  1. Well, this is different! But it is still a timely and useful post. I also use LastPass for the exact same reason. Thanks for posting.

  2. Appreciate this life advice Philip. I’ve been meaning to do this for some time now

  3. What does this article have to do with hiking? Get it out of here.

    • When my buddies and I hike together, hiking isn’t the only thing we talk about. This seems to me to be the kind of thing that friends, even virtual ones, ought to be comfortable discussing as a “by the way” sort of thing. Of course, if it’s not any one person’s cup of tea, neither the site nor a particular article is mandatory reading. And because it’s Philip’s site, neither you nor anyone else is in a position to dictate content to him.

    • While Philip’s advice is not specific only to hikers, it does fit his themes of planning and emergency preparedness. And it comes from lessons learned from experience. The current emergency stay-at-home period might also be a good time to do things like update wills, medical directives, property and asset inventories, medications lists, etc. “Continuity” planning is not just for death, since someone can become incapacitated without dying, which is even more of a mess from legal, financial and practical perspectives.

    • It might be super out of left field from the normal stuff, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting, well-written, and helpful. If Phillip wants to take the risk and post non-hiking related stuff, that’s entirely his call to make. He might lose some people like you, but I think the majority of folks will appreciate a good article and not care that it doesn’t fit with the rest of the content. It’s not like there are rules to running a hiking blog.

    • What does it have to do with hiking? Hiking is dangerous. People die because of things that happen on the trail. If I choose to hike anyway, I want to know that my loved ones will not have to suffer more than necessary from any lack of preparation on my part. Leaving my digital life inaccessible is a great example of not preparing (so is not having a valid will on file, but that’s another subject). Having peace of mind in these matters makes hiking more enjoyable.

      Like the other readers of this site, I trust Philip’s reviews, and more importantly the way he thinks things through. A recommendation like this gets my serious attention.

    • The comment from MEAT EATER (above) is a person who spams my website several times a day. My software catches about 99% of his spam comments and blocks them from being published, but you have to admire his persistence. Or pity him.

  4. Great advice! Anyone who has dealt with this, especially aging parents, etc., can relate… one action we took when my wife’s parents started showing symptoms of dementia/Alzheimers is to make sure a key family member has the power of attorney so the legal issues of wills, trusts, medical, etc., can be executed accordingly. The amount of time, money, legal issues and stress it saves is far beyond the initial costs of setting up the power of attorney.

  5. Katharine Knarreborg

    Thank you for spreading the word on password managers! I feel like a broken record telling my family and friends how useful they are on a day to day basis and also how critically important they are in the case of an emergency/death/etc. Really, if you don’t have one, you NEED one.
    If you want to compare options, the other big names besides LastPass are 1Password and Dashlane.

    • I may have to try LastPass again. I found it extremely confusing, particularly when trying to set up the Family Plan. In my attempt, I encountered a lot of jargon that did not seem to be defined well. I guess my dinosaur-ness is showing! Fortunately, we have a system for dealing with passwords, though it is not nearly so elegant as using a password manager.

      • It’s best to get your own house (passwords) in order before you try to get other peoples. Once you get your passwords sorted and grant someone emergency access, things become much clearer.

  6. Philip, one of the things that sets your site off from ALL others is the personal connection you provide readers. I just discovered your site about 6 months ago but really appreciate the fact that you treat your readers like they are family. Today’s post is yet another example of that. Well done.

  7. Two comments: First, from my perspective this is quite relevant to the usual general area covered by this site. As a result of the dot-com bust and my employer’s hope to avoid layoffs, my hours were cut back enough for me to take a day-long hike in the middle of every other week. For reasons that seemed good at the time I walked by myself. It did not take my wife long to point out how dangerous that could be and to ask what I was doing to reduce the risk. In addition to direct risk reduction (10 essentials, a “two-way pager”, a detailed plan for every trip, and a lot of other stuff) it forced me to become aware of my own mortality and do a lot of stuff to deal with that. People like us who do risky things need to a) be aware of the risks and b) deal with them appropriately.

    Second, I now have more familiarity with the fact that death is part of life than I would like to. I was one of the primary people helping my mother negotiate the process of dying five years ago, and the same for my wife four weeks ago. I am also on the committee which just finished writing up our denomination’s collective advice to our members individually on the subject of “Dying, Death, and Bereavement”. There are many things that are more important than the subject of this post; most are of an interpersonal and/or spiritual nature. However, having heard second hand of the experiences of many family members, I can say that the thing that most of us are most clueless about is how to insure that our family knows about and can access all of our Internet-mediated relationships.

    Thank you, Philip.

  8. This is very helpful information and I’m sharing it with friends and family. A real service to our community, Thank you!

  9. Any reason why a master list could not be kept in a safe or safe deposit box, as long as others have knowledge of where its at and have access to it?

    • You could certainly do that, but how often do you sign up for a new service or change your existing passwords? I’ve found it gets out of date pretty fast.

  10. I’m semi retired from the cyber security world. When I started my AT thru hike I gave wife a list of accounts and passwords along with commentary on what to do if something went awry including death. I did the same on my Covid-19 ended, 2020 PCT thru hike attempt. But in the case of MS Windows machines you can always boot them with a Linux boot CD or USB stick and reset the password and/or extract files while you’re at it. Bad guys or adversarial governments do similar things when you leave your PC in a hotel safe!

  11. CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

    Thank you, Phillip. I’m retired military and law enforcement….and even though I have significantly simplified my digital life, at last count, I had 120+ Passwords for websites, subscriptions, accounts, etc…. some that include a periodic subscription / renewal fee. While my career (and hobbies) has Found me doing some crazy sh*t over the years, I wonder that I am still blessed to be hiking this earth! For all of us, it is only a matter of time. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to write this unique article….none of my family has done anything to deserve an “over complication of things” upon my eventual demise. I have never heard of LastPass….I promise that I am going to look into it today. BTW,,,,LOLed at the pitying Meat Eater remark! Just another example of the sad sorts of people who needlessly strike out at others online if for no other reason than it validates themselves to themselves.

  12. I use the method mentioned by Cheri. Yes, I do have to be diligent about keeping it updated and secure, but I have this distrust about keeping my personal information in the cloud, especially account and password info. Too many reports about systems being hacked.

    • From lastpass…

      Your data is encrypted and decrypted at the device level. Data stored in your vault is kept secret, even from LastPass. Your master password, and the keys used to encrypt and decrypt data, are never sent to LastPass’ servers, and are never accessible by LastPass.

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