Privacy and Death
I’m not trying to bum anyone out, but let’s get real for a moment: if you’re reading this, someday you will die. I don’t care if you’re sixteen, sixty, human, robot overlord, or post-human alien reading this a thousand years from when it was written (in which case, please pause for a moment to be impressed that this tiny little blog post somehow exists in a thousand years). No matter your situation, you will someday die. I hope it’s a long time from now with a happy and full life behind you, but regardless it’s coming.
The only real question, which I want you to think about today as you read this, is what will you leave behind? Maybe you’re a parent with kids and a decent amount of money stashed away for their future. Maybe you’re a billionaire and you want your estate divided up and given to charity after you pass (if you are, please consider my OpenCollective). Maybe you don’t have a penny to your name. But the fact is, unless you’re in a position to have an approximate date of your death (such as a terminal illness or being elderly), you’re probably not going to have warning and other people are going to have to pick up the pieces. Even if you do have your affairs in order, there is still a bit of work that your survivors will have to take on your behalf (such as filing for a death certificate, arranging a ceremony for your remains, and handling your property). So it’s important that you think about your death now. Go ahead and have an existential meltdown, and once you’re done let’s talk about how to balance privacy and putting your life in order.
I’m gonna make a few assumptions in this blog post, and if they don’t apply to you I hope you’ll still be able to find some food for thought and adapt the underlying principles to your situation. In this blog, I assume that you live in America. I assume that you have a family – not necessarily children, but maybe parents or siblings or close friends that you would trust with your life in an emergency. I also assume that you are at least upper lower class or lower middle class – in other words, you are not living literally paycheck-to-paycheck and have at least some degree of disposable income. With those assumptions, let’s begin.
Let’s start with the basic stuff that applies whether you’re a privacy enthusiast or not. You need to think right now about what you want to happen after you die. Death is a powerful and traumatic event for most people. When a person dies, things move extremely fast. The body begins to decay within minutes of death (the exact rate is determined primarily by the environment), so it’s important to get the deceased buried as quickly as possible. That means getting a death certificate, arranging a funeral, getting loved ones gathered together, taking time off work, traveling, etc, often in less than a week. That also entails alerting banks, creditors, employers, and others of your passing. And typically, the person handling all this has their own life to continue to live on top of that – a job, a family, hobbies, etc. So right now there’s a lot of things you can do to make life easier for whoever has to handle your passing.
Right now, while you’re still alive, you should start by deciding what you want to happen to your body. Do you want a funeral? Do you want to be cremated? Do you want to be an organ donor or donated to science? Look into this stuff right now and create a simple will. Then think about your assets. Do you own a house or a car? Do you have money in savings or stocks? Decide what you want to do with that. Are you single with kids? Decide who you would want to take care of them. Once you gather all this stuff up, type it up in a word processor, print it, sign it, and get it officially notarized. It only costs about $10. It’s probably not as good as an official legal will, but it will definitely go a long way and unless you’re quite wealthy with a complex array of investments and assets, that’s probably all you really need. The reason it’s important to have this written plainly and notarized is because – again – death is a traumatic and stressful event for most survivors. If you haven’t had this conversation with your family (and even if you have), a fight may ensue. Your spouse may want to cremate you, but your kids may argue that you wanted a traditional funeral and the surviving spouse is just trying to be cheap. Likewise, you may want to cut a child out of your will, or maybe two of your kids want to sell the house and split the money but the third wants to keep the house. The dispute could even make it all the way to court. Again, while a notarized document may not instantly solve this dilemma, it goes a long way and it does save a lot of time and money in the legal system. These examples aren’t as far-fetched as you may think. Call up any local estate planning attorney and ask about it, they see it all the time. (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, please don’t take estate planning advice from a random stranger on the internet, contact an actual lawyer for better advice.)
So you should start your planning by plainly stating what you want to happen with your body, your finances, your assets, and anything else you have strong opinions about (I want my Facebook account deleted, I want my dog adopted by my sister, I want my stocks liquidated and donated to X charity or political party, etc).
The next important part of planning for the inevitable is to consider access, both to accounts and devices. In some ways, this is really tricky. In others, it’s quite simple.
Let’s start by considering your accounts. There are some accounts you will absolutely want your survivors to have access to. For example, they will probably need access to your bank and other financial accounts to clear and close the account. If you have any sort of life insurance accounts, they’ll need access to that so they can file a claim. Honestly, it’s probably not a bad idea to give them access to your primary banking email account and your work email so they can inform the relevant people of your passing. Other accounts may not require access unless you want them closed. If you come from a very traditional family, you may not be comfortable saying “here’s the login to my PornHub account, please delete it after my death.” The point is, consider all your various accounts and what you want to happen with them. Are you fine with them just collecting dust? Do you want them closed? Do you want the data in them – such as comments and messages – cleared if they can’t be deleted entirely?
Now that we’ve sorted out which accounts are needed and which ones aren’t, let’s talk about accessing them. This is where things get really tricky. You want a way for your executor (fancy legal word for “person who handles your will and affairs”) to be able to access all this stuff, but you also don’t want anyone else to be able to access that information. For example, you could write down all your passwords in a small notebook and stick it in a safe, but what if the safe gets compromised? If it’s a home safe, like a firebox, what if it gets stolen or cracked? If it’s a security-deposit box, what if the bank gets robbed and the thieves just take everything they can? Perhaps a better solution might be an encrypted USB stick, but you have to make sure that the person in question is comfortable decrypting it and has the password stored somewhere safe or can remember it. It’s also good to consider how you’re going to update the backup if you change any of your passwords. A possible solution might be using a reputable cloud-based password manager like Bitwarden and activating the Emergency Access feature. This is where a loved one can request account access and if you don’t deny it within a set period of time (I believe 7 days) the request is approved. The feature was made for exactly this type of situation. In the end I can’t tell you the best solution, just throwing out some ideas and considerations.
If you’re reading this, I hope you’ve taken my advice to use two factor authentication. That means that while your accounts are incredibly secure, a backup stick full of passwords may not be enough for your executor or loved ones to access the required accounts. They’ll need access to your device with two factor on it. The solution here really depends a lot on how you execute 2FA. For example, if you use a hardware token, you could make your executor aware of this. Easy peasy. They now have your logins and your token (which they should’ve received when they took over your assets) and they can easily begin to access your accounts. If you use a software token, you could leave your device’s login information in your password backup (this is another reason you shouldn’t use biometric identification to unlock your devices). Going back to the Bitwarden idea, you could also store your 2FA keys there, giving whoever holds your Bitwarden account total access to everything. Overall this is a pretty simple consideration, you just have to make sure you’ve examined all angles and decided what works best for your situation.
Once again, I’m not recommending any specific procedures. I’m also not trying to bum anyone out with death talk, but it’s important that we remember that this stuff is inevitable and you can save your loved ones a lot of headache with just a simple document that says “here’s what to do with my body, my stuff, and the information necessary to make that happen.” They’re already going to have a hard enough time coping with losing you, so try to be considerate and make the process a little less stressful on them.