Passing Them On

Chuck Staley

“LOOK RIGHT HERE, Charlie. If you click on the background of Windows Vista in just the right place, the script that I developed will launch and give you access to all my online passwords. You will need to know that if something were to happen to me.”

Dad was a self-taught computer nerd and paranoid about securing passwords. The year was 2007.

Dad died in 2018. I didn’t remember where to click to get his passwords. I didn’t even know whether he continued to hide passwords on his desktop following subsequent Microsoft operating system upgrades. Mom didn’t know any of the passwords, either. Dad kept his passwords extremely secure. Problem is, now nobody had access to them.

This was the first of many frustrations Mom and I encountered in the days after Dad passed away. All Dad’s usernames were lost as well, so we tried going through the “forgot username/password” protocols. Those weren’t helpful because, without the password, we didn’t have access to Dad’s numerous email accounts. We also didn’t have access to his cell phone—because he didn’t have one.

In one day, my mom lost all online access to credit cards, utilities, bank accounts, retirement accounts, retirement benefits, Costco, Social Security, Medicare and more. Thirty years ago, nobody had a problem like this. Today, I hear about this type of thing all the time.

So, Mom needed to open new accounts and verify her identity in a variety of ways. She sent copies of Dad’s death certificate and copies of their marriage license, and in one case she was required to send a copy of Dad’s will, last signed 13 years earlier. There were other times when Mom had to answer obscure security questions about the spelling of the school where Dad attended kindergarten. This one was particularly frustrating because it seems that Dad misspelled the school’s name.

Handling all this was difficult, and it was piled on top of an already stressful situation—the death of a spouse—when folks are least able to handle a lot of extra stress. It took months to gain and regain control of my parents’ online accounts. Much of this could have been avoided with proper password management.

Statistically speaking, one out of every one person will die, so it makes sense to do some advance planning for the inevitable. Family members will be grateful if we do.

Mom initially tried to manage her passwords by writing them down in a notebook. Admittedly, this isn’t a very secure method of storing passwords. But there was another problem. When Mom revisited an online account, she frequently discovered the password and username combinations weren’t correct for some reason. Keeping the notebook of passwords current was a bit of a chore.

Fortunately, there are automated tools available to make accessing online accounts easier and more secure. In addition, these tools can make things easier for our loved ones if something were to happen to us.

Most internet browsers have a built-in password manager. These might seem like an easy and free way to manage your passwords. Unfortunately, they don’t work well across both desktop and mobile devices.

Dashlane, 1Password or another good password manager—one that doesn’t come as part of your internet browser—may be just the ticket for managing passwords across all your devices. They can suggest complex passwords, store lengthy passwords, and automatically fill in passwords seamlessly on any computer’s internet browser and on your smartphone. No more using the same password for multiple accounts, and no more forgotten passwords, either. And, just as important, you’ll only need to remember one master password instead of many.

In addition, many password managers provide alerts to security issues that may affect your accounts. Some also offer family plans or have ways to set up emergency recovery options to make it easier for our family if something were to happen to us. The only downside to a password manager: There may be a small monthly or annual fee.

Chuck Staley and his wife Gina have five children between ages seven and 30. He worked for 35 years as a Department of Defense engineer at Edwards Air Force Base before retiring in January 2022. Chuck now volunteers as a part-time pastor at a small church. He recently started a sole proprietorship, Walk Worthy Solutions, to train federal employees about retirement planning and leadership. Chuck enjoys walking daily with his wife, reading, home improvement projects, and traveling with his family. His previous article was Best Time of My Life.

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