How-To Geek

Set Up a Posthumous Password Contingency Plan

If you dropped dead today, how big of a pain would it be for your family/estate to access your computer and virtual accounts? Make a plan to ensure your digital life isn’t a headache for them.

The Wall Street Journal turns its eye towards a topic most of us don’t like to spend much time thinking about, death. Specifically the stress and hassle it can cause your family and estate executors if they can’t access any of the digital accounts and computers you left behind:

Leon LaBrecque, a certified financial planner in Troy, Mich., says he has encountered the problem with a number of clients, including one who also was a friend who died of cancer. Mr. LaBrecque’s friend had told him that his financial records were on his computer, but when the planner asked the client’s wife for his password, she didn’t know it.

“I looked at the dog sitting in the chair next to the computer, and typed in his name, Pepper. It worked, but I’ve been in other situations where we’ve had to hire a computer programmer to get into a hard drive,” Mr. LaBrecque says.

He is encouraging clients to fill out a free form that includes user names and passwords to online accounts. The form, technically called a “testamentary letter” or “letter of final instruction,” isn’t a formal legal document but can help your family navigate your assets—including those on the Internet. You can see it at

While keeping a paper list may not be practical for people who have many accounts and update the passwords frequently, the point is taken. The last thing your family wants to do deal with after your death is the inability to access important records, pay bills online, and access investment portfolios and other assets because they don’t know important passwords. Whether you keep a paper notebook or you write down your LastPass password on an index card in your family safe, setting up some sort of posthumous password contingency plan will make life easier on everyone.

PINs That Needle Families [The Wall Street Journal via Free Money Finance]

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 08/11/11

Comments (20)

  1. Travis

    I have simply told two different people a part of the password to a TrueCrypt volume with an up to date list of passwords and other things. This way they can deal with everything after my death.

  2. Brian

    This is one of those times a password manager would come in handy; only one password to give.

  3. Ray Pevley

    Very interesting indeed. I am a little shocked at myself, but that thought has never crossed my mind. Thankfully, my wife and I both know all of the others password’s to every account. However, for those where this isn’t the case, or maybe someone who is single and didn’t share with family, would definitely be something that required consideration. Thanks for Sharing!!!

  4. Judy

    I sent in a Reader’s tip several years ago to SmartComputing magazine about this subject. I keep all passwords and user names, hardware info, warranty info, software info for all my pcs on Avery business cards and file them in a wooden business card box. When I “kick” my husband will be able to get into anything. Of course, this is at home and only he and I have access to it.

  5. Daniel

    I keep most of this sort of thing in a document on a flash drive, but it is definitely a good idea to keep a list of accounts and passwords just in case. I know it sounds kinda stupid, but having one document with a list of accounts on one drive, and a list of passwords on another drive is a way to keep them somewhat more secure too. I still don’t trust online storage sites so….

  6. dc

    Password info is all very well, but I think there are MAJOR issues , if the living suddenly have access to the deceased persons estate, and continue paying expenses.

    Far better to leave things for the estate executor/solicitor to handle, methinks.

  7. chris

    my wife knows my gmail. and all my passwords are hooked up to my gmail.

  8. Bill

    I use Keepass to manage all my passwords and vitals. The Keepass file is updated regularly and kept on a flash drive in a safe deposit box with written instructions for opening the file. Two family members have the safe deposit box key., and my executor knows of the file’s existence (and its location), and importance.

  9. Art€

    I use Keepass for (all) my passwords and it has a very strong password to get into it. My database is backed up into my Dropbox folder (under a separate Keepass folder) which is synced on my brothers Dropbox folder too. He knows the one Keepass password and so he can (when I’ve kicked the bucket) get access to it.
    My brother does the same for me. So it shouldn’t be an issue.

  10. wendy

    I have two alternative passwords I use for financial accounts, i.e. bank, broker, credit cards, mortgage, etc as well as all email accounts – they are printed out on an excel sheet with all account numbers, sign-ins, and alternate passwords as well as a list of the automatic bill payments on my credit card and a list of those that come as e-bills. In addition, I have any and all doctors and what their specialties are listed on another sheet. I have these lists password protected on my computer but the printed information is in a binder where my family knows to look for it. Any and all personal information is in this binder and updated periodically. There is no need for my family to have additional stress in a crisis.

  11. GranPaSmurf

    Yep, did that. Update it frequently to wife and daughter. I have used some favorite ‘base’ passwords but am gradually moving all to LastPass. They know and understand how to use it without me.
    I guess the online banking would be most important & soonest.
    I even have an emergency app that pops up every time my palm pre is turned on. It has who to call and my cardiologist’s info.
    Of course I never considered this stuff when I was a youngster like you guys.

  12. wendy

    To those who haveonly their spouse know the information could be troublesome – what if you both are in an accident together? There should be some other family member or third party – maybe a lawyer – that has that information in a sealed envelope. Nothing should be left to chance.

  13. Autumn

    My sister’s husband passed away last year. She has 4 young children. This is incredibly good advice. Knowing his passwords helped her get their finances in order. I recommend at least sharing your password to email with a reliable person. Passwords to other sites can often be retrieved or reset through email.

  14. Ed

    Haven’t tried this one but it seems worth a try:

    “Legacy Locker is a safe, secure repository for your vital digital property that lets you grant access to online assets for friends and loved ones in the event of loss, death, or disability.”

  15. Jim

    I have a password-protected word doc shared regularly with my wife. The testmentary letter is a good backup idea.

  16. D.L.A.

    I seem to recall that safe deposit boxes are sealed by the bank when the owner of the box dies. Therefore, that is not a good place to leave anything that needs to be accessed quickly. If you have a will, and you should, it and any other special information can generally be kept by the attorney who created the will. Immediately accessible and safe.

  17. Paul

    The problem I see with giving parts of passwords or otherwise splitting up information to two different people as Travis suggests is that you have to make sure you die before either one of them. If you are absolutely sure you can manage that, then this is a great idea. Otherwise ….. not so much.

  18. Michelle

    Problem with leaving the “key” to all the other info with ONE PERSON or ON PAPER IN ONE LOCATION is:
    Suppose the person pre-deceases you by a week, say? or you’re both in the same traffic accident? To the gal who left it on a 3×5 card: suppose you die in a house fire? Folks, leave a copy in your SAFTY DEPOSIT BOX, and one with your attorney, with his copy of your will.

  19. Charlie

    I am not an expert, but I suspect that all the accounts get frozen upon death. I spent several months with dozens of copies of a death certificate and a living trust gaining access. Yes, bank boxes are locked up.

  20. sVen

    D.L.A. said:
    “I seem to recall that safe deposit boxes are sealed by the bank when the owner of the box dies. Therefore, that is not a good place to leave anything that needs to be accessed quickly. If you have a will, and you should, it and any other special information can generally be kept by the attorney who created the will. Immediately accessible and safe.”

    I don’t trust lawyers or priests. I keep a list at home, where my wife can get to it easily. Another list is with my sister. (the trusted one)

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