When Rebecca Bistany’s 40-year-old husband Paul died suddenly of a heart attack in November 2022, she didn’t know what kind of assets he left behind for her and their infant daughter.

Compounding her heartache, Paul didn’t leave a will. Bistany wanted to access key business and financial accounts by resetting passwords but found herself in a spot many who lose loved ones encounter: She couldn’t get into his phone, leaving her locked out of everything from personal photos to critical estate information.

Her story is tragic and increasingly common. With password management company NordPass saying each person has an average of 100 online accounts, the deaths of loved ones have become ever more complicated.

During already-difficult grieving times, figuring out how to get into, maintain or shut down accounts can range from personally difficult to financially necessary. And while digital legacy planning can ease some of that burden, experts say far too few people take advantage of those tools.

“He had a four-digit passcode and I literally tried everything I could,” Bistany, who lives on Long Island, New York, told CNN. “I kept a list of what I tried because the more you got it wrong, the longer it would lock you out. I did it so many times, I can’t even try anymore.”

Although she contacted Apple, AT&T and even the police asking for help unlocking the phone, companies do not allow family members access unless the owner lists them as their legacy contact.

Still, she keeps his phone number active, paying a monthly plan and holding out hope she’ll one day be able to access not only financial accounts but years of photos and videos of their life together.

And even for some people who can access their loved one’s accounts, the process can be daunting. Laura Orrico, a widow from Chicago, said she had to hire an IT professional to help go through everything on her late husband’s computer.

“I had widow brain,” she said. “I couldn’t even organize a drawer let alone figure out his computer.”

Experts recommend people of all ages develop a digital legacy plan, from putting passwords in one place to deciding what happens to your social media presence.

These plans aren’t typically legally binding, unless they’re directly incorporated into a will, but they can be invaluable for loved ones after one’s death.

“Your email account likely has much more important information documented than your physical home office today,” said Tracey Woo, a vice president at wealth management firm RBC Royal Trust.

Here’s a closer look at how to create a digital legacy plan:

Getting started

The first step is to take an inventory of your digital assets and determine which are of value and what accounts could be closed.

Digital assets can include financial, sentimental or informational value, from social media, cloud and email accounts to crypto assets, customer loyalty points within e-wallets and online gaming accounts.

Abby Schneiderman, the co-founder of Everplans, a digital legacy planning service, said one of the most important things someone can do is to make their unlock code for their phone and computer accessible for a trusted loved one. That’s because many other accounts can be reset after gaining access to email.

Phones are often needed for text verifications, so it’s helpful to hang onto smartphone devices for a while before resetting them, too.

Pick a digital executor

Designate a digital executor who can help carry out your digital legacy plan.

Woo advises selecting someone whom you can regularly update on plan changes and let that person, or trusted family members, know what the digital assets are and where they’re located.

She said it is now a standard practice for lawyers who specialize in estate planning and will drafting to ask clients for information on their digital assets. But people who haven’t touched their will in a long time may want to update it now with this information.

Rebecca Bistany remains locked out of her husband Paul’s iPhone, nearly a year and a half after his death. (Courtesy Rebecca Bistany via CNN Newsource)

Consider a legacy planning service

When Jamie McDonald, a 60-year-old mother of three, was scrolling social media a few years ago while on her vacation with her husband, she came across a thread that she says haunted her for months.

A close-knit family was torn apart when the parents died suddenly in a car accident; the surviving family members were left to divide the house, furniture and more.

“It scared me,” McDonald, a tech advisor from Baltimore, told CNN. “I didn’t want to leave my kids with the burden of decisions … especially in the heat of grief or trauma.”

To manage her anxiety, she joined Everplans, a platform that organizes family documents and important account information and allows users to list what they want done after their deaths.

“I’ve even planned the music I want at my funeral,” McDonald said.

Services like Everplans also leave space for passing down letters to loved ones, sharing family recipes and listing instructions on how to care for pets.

Another digital legacy service, called MyWishes, allows users to create social media wills to decide what happens to those accounts after death, in addition to detailing other plans they want executed.

For example, Lucy Watts, a MyWishes user and disability activist who died in 2023, left a handful of goodbye and birthday messages for loved ones that were made public after her death.

James Norris, founder of MyWishes, said thinking through these details is “often overlooked” but can make a big difference to someone a person leaves behind.

Password managers can help

Nikki Earnhart, a widow from Illinois, has been unable to access her husband’s Google Documents, where he kept a list of important passwords, since his death in March 2022.

“Google will not allow me to have access to his email account,” she said. “It has been terrible.”

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment about this specific case or its policies. But last year, the company announced it reserves the right to delete inactive accounts after two years. Now Earnhart is worried Google will permanently delete his account.

Although some people write passwords on a list somewhere, many experts recommend using a password manager, such as 1Password, LastPass or NordPass, to manage many passwords in one spot — you only ever need to remember one password, not hundreds.

Many password managers allow family members and third parties to access your account upon death.

It’s also smart to back up digital assets stored in the cloud, such as photos, videos and important documents. Most cloud services terminate access at death.

Use legacy features

Some of the hardships endured by widows, such as Bistany who is unable to get into her late husband’s locked iPhone, could have been avoided if he had enabled Apple’s Legacy ID feature. In 2022, Apple added a way for users to name one or more legacy contacts – essentially an executor to their iPhone and iCloud accounts – for people to access their devices and data after death.

Apple states on its website that an estate executor can also get a court order or show other legal documentation to gain access to someone’s devices or account if a Legacy ID is not set.

Google also has an inactive account tool that can be enabled to allow a trusted person to access their accounts if there’s been no activity after a certain period of time.

Some social media accounts, such as Facebook, have legacy tools, too. For example, a user can select a person to oversee their account, such as accepting friend requests on behalf of their memorialized profile, or decide ahead of time if they want to permanently delete their page after death.

When to start

Although Schneiderman said many Everplans’ members are in their 50s and 60s, more younger users are finding their way to the platform.

Scheiderman also urges young people to start having conversations with their parents now, if they haven’t already. “Gaining access to this information is critical ahead of time,” she said.

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