Digital Estate Planning: 5 Things to Do Now to Make Things Easier in a Crisis

Providing your loved ones with medical info and easy access to online accounts can make a painful time much less stressful

Illustration of a person lifting the corner of a laptop up like its a doormat and finding a key underneath. Illustration: Kiersten Essenpreis

On March 14, 2018, Steve McKinnon, a former Vietnam veteran and a paramedic, passed away suddenly at the age of 67. The months after his death were “all a blur,” says his daughter Erin McKinnon, a marketer in Florida, “but luckily my dad made it easier for me. He was extremely prepared.” 

He had added her to his financial accounts, kept a notebook with all his log-in info, and stored important papers in a safe. “My father frequently reminded me of where the key to the safe was,” McKinnon says. “But when you’re in your early 30s, you aren’t thinking you will need to know or use any of the info for a long time.” 

It’s not pleasant to think about death or a medical emergency that could put you out of commission, even temporarily, but one of the greatest gifts you can give to a loved one is preparing for those scenarios.

“It’s an absolute necessity,” says Jill Johnson-Young, a grief therapist and a double widow, who is now caring for a mother with advancing Alzheimer’s disease. “Those who neglect to look at this and get it done may be leaving a mess and a lot of trauma behind.” 

Tackling this project can also bring you peace of mind, she adds.

While many people are familiar with traditional estate planning—creating a will and setting up a durable power of attorney—it’s important to think about digital estate planning, too. How will your loved ones access your online accounts to pay the bills? What should they do with the records, memories, and other assets that reside on your electronic devices or in cloud storage? 

We have a game plan for you. It’s a weekend project your family members will be thankful for when you’re no longer able to take care of things yourself.

1. Set Up an 'In Case of Emergency' Document

The first step is to organize important information so that your loved ones can quickly access it during a crisis. You can create a document with this info and stash it in a safe or share it securely via a password manager (more on that in a bit). We’ve created a 10-page PDF to help you get started. Here’s the kind of information it’s useful to include:

Essential personal and family details: Record the names, addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers of important contacts. Include allergies and other health conditions as well as medications you take regularly. Also add the addresses of workplaces, schools, and other places where the people in your life can normally be found in case they can’t be reached by phone.

Key contacts: Note the names and phone numbers of your employer, close friends, doctors, lawyer, and accountant. Include anyone else you might interact with on a regular basis, such as a daycare provider. 

To help you gather and share info with your loved ones, we created a 10-page document listing the medical, legal, and financial details often needed in times of crisis. Click to download the full PDF.

Location of documents: Indicate where you keep your hard-to-replace documents, such as your birth certificate, passport, Social Security card, will, and other legal documents.

These should include advance care directives, such as a living will, durable power of attorney for financial decisions, and healthcare proxy for health decisions. A fireproof and theft-proof safe is ideal for these documents. If you have a safe deposit box, jot down where it is and where you keep the key.

Financial information: List your bank accounts and their account numbers, investments you own, and credit card and other debt obligations. Also note all of your regularly recurring bills, when they are due, and how you typically pay them (e.g., automatically from your checking account or by check). 

This cheatsheet can also be critically important for your own use, if, for example, you have to evacuate your home due to a natural disaster. Be sure to update the document any time the information changes (like, say, when you switch insurance providers).

2. Share Your Passwords With Family Members

In order to pay your bills, copy photos you have on your computer or phone, and handle all of your other affairs, someone will need access to the log-in information for a variety of accounts. Ideally, at least two people—not necessarily in the same household—should have access, just in case.

Write down the passwords for your computer and your phone, and keep them in a secure place. If you want to record this in your “in case of emergency document,” you can leave a password hint instead of writing down the passwords. For example, “Last sentence of favorite book + jersey number of favorite NBA player.”  

For the rest of your passwords, we recommend using a password manager. In CR’s tests, 1Password scored highest for usability, data privacy, and security. The family plan ($60/year) covers up to five family members, who get access to shared family vaults (i.e., folders) and individual vaults for themselves. 

If you decide to use 1Password, you’ll invite family members to your shared account. Once they’ve joined, you can add or move account log-ins, secure notes, bank info, and even computer files to the shared vault. They can access this information with the one password they set up for their own account. And should they forget their password, you or someone else you designate in 1Password can help them recover it.

You can also use 1Password as an authenticator for sites with two-factor authentication (2FA), also called multifactor authentication, turned on. This way, your family members won’t need to have access to your phone in order to log in to accounts you’ve secured with 2FA. They can get the one-time generated code from the app.

1Password also has an “Emergency Kit” feature. It’s basically a PDF document that lists the secure key you need to sign in to your account on any new device, along with the sign-in address and email address tied to the account. It includes a line where you can write in your master password. Print out the Emergency Kit and store it in a safe place.

3. Designate a Legacy Contact for Your Major Online Accounts

A few tech companies offer tools that let you grant control of your account to someone you trust should anything happen to you.

Google’s Inactive Account Manager will notify up to 10 people if you’ve been idle for a certain period of time (3, 6, 12, or 18 months). You can choose to share data such as your calendar, Google Drive files, Google Photos, and email. You can decide to have your Google Account deleted three months after it becomes inactive, as well. To set this up, go to your Inactive Account Manager page and follow the prompts.

Facebook’s Legacy Contact allows a friend or relative to look after your account after you’ve passed away. That includes managing tribute posts on your page, requesting removal of your account, responding to new friend requests, and updating your profile picture and cover photo. The person won’t be able to post as you or see your messages. To set this up, click the down arrow at the top right of any Facebook page. Select Settings & Privacy > Settings > Memorialization Settings. Type a name in the “Choose a friend” field, which will search for the person’s Facebook account, and click Add.

Apple’s Legacy Contact gives one or more people access to the data stored in your Apple account after your death. This can include messages, photos, notes, apps, and files, but not licensed media you’ve purchased, payment information, or passwords and other data stored in Keychain. Your legacy contact will need your death certificate and the access key that will be generated when you add her or him to your Apple ID. To set this up:

In iOS: Go to Settings > [your name ] > Password & Security > Legacy Contact > Add Legacy Contact.

In macOS: Click the Apple menu > System Preferences > Apple ID > Password & Security > Legacy Contact > Add Legacy Contact.

4. Add Your Wishes for Your Digital Assets to Your Will

Family members may need to seek legal guidance to access other online accounts. Microsoft, for example, says that it must be formally served with a valid subpoena or court order to provide such access. LinkedIn and Instagram can memorialize your accounts but likewise require legal documentation or proof of death, respectively. 

“The advice that applies to traditional property also applies here,” says Ben Orzeske, an attorney who works for the Uniform Law Commission, which helped pass the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) across the majority of U.S. states. RUFADAA allows people you designate in your will or another legal document to access your digital property, such as computer files, web domains, and social media accounts. Before this law existed, Orzeske says, you could sue Google or another company for access to another person’s account, but the terms of service normally said that only the original user could access the account. “And [pre-RUFADAA], terms of a user’s will did not override the company’s terms of service,” he adds. That still applies in states without the act.

If you want your family members to be able to manage your accounts and access your digital property—whether it has monetary or purely sentimental value—have a lawyer add this clause to your will or trust, Orzeske advises. 

He points out that RUFADAA doesn’t allow for access to the content of emails and other types of electronic communications because of privacy considerations. Unless you state in your will that you want your fiduciary (such as the executor of your will) to be able to read your emails, they will remain private.

The digital asset clause can also be added to legal instruments for incapacity planning, such as a POA (power of attorney), says Sharon Hartung, an engineer and the author of three books on estate planning for digital assets. 

“Also, create an inventory of the top assets you own,” Hartung says, “and plan for the top three digital assets that you would be devastated by if they weren’t available.” This can include copyrighted works like writing, music, or art you’ve created, as well as precious family photos

For your social media posts and stories, you can use the free social media will generator from online will-making service Epilogue to create a document that specifies what your wishes are for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Apple, and a broad category of “other social media accounts.”

5. Have a Family Emergency Planning Meeting

Finally, it’s time to talk to your family about your wishes, and make sure they know how to use the password manager. As uncomfortable as this might be, “avoiding this discussion ensures trauma,” Johnson-Young, the grief therapist, says. “Having the dialogue openly is such a blessing for the survivors, and makes their grief process so much easier.”

Johnson-Young recommends picking one trusted person to manage things. “I have seen far too many families embroiled in ugliness at the hardest moments in their lives as a result of poor planning.”

If you have this conversation now, when you’re in good health, it may reassure everyone present that nothing is wrong and you’re just getting your affairs in order.


Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

As a service journalist, my goal is to help people get the most out of their technology and other tools. Prior to joining CR, my work appeared online and in print for publications including The New York Times, Wirecutter, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics, and PCWorld. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or chasing the puppy. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola).