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Left With the Details

Mark Eckman

MY WIFE AND I PLANNED our retirement using several standard assumptions, including how long we might live. Dorothy was healthier than me, so we assumed I’d be the first to go. But on June 30, she died suddenly, and I was the one left to deal with the fallout—including the many pesky, practical details.

Those details were bureaucratic and technical, and it didn’t take long to complete them. Dealing with the funeral home, Social Security and various financial institutions was straightforward. Diligently maintaining our revokable living trust and beneficiary designations allowed our estate plan to work as we intended.

As I started looking at the apps on Dorothy’s cellphone, it was clear that—while her life had ended—her digital life had not. There were three issues I needed to address: the risk of identity theft, her continuing presence as an advertising target and unwanted subscriptions. This took more time than the practical details.

Social media platforms want customers to be “sticky,” so leaving can be difficult. Facebook offers a legacy program which allows a user’s page to remain while preventing any further changes. You can establish a legacy contact you designate to inform Facebook of your death. Alternatively, after your death, a family member or friend can submit proof of death to move the account to legacy status.

Google takes a different approach, allowing users to establish an “inactive account manager.” Once you establish the plan, Google will watch the account for activity. If the account has been inactive for a specified period, Google will try to reach your trusted contact. If your trusted contact doesn’t respond or Google finds no activity for two months, it’ll delete the account. Remind your heirs to take control of your account after your death and gather any information they want from, say, Google Contacts, Gmail and Google Photos before the account is deleted.

Many advertisers try to keep customers sticky by asking them to subscribe to their advertising, typically via email or text. I took the time to unsubscribe from advertisers so their messages stopped arriving. I had added Dorothy’s account to my email app so that any important messages wouldn’t be lost. Eliminating the advertisements was for my own sanity. Note that the “white label” unsubscribe functions are not always effective. Instead, search for the word “unsubscribe” in the message and use that link. When you respond to texts with “STOP,” the vendor should generate an automated confirmation. If necessary, you might report messages as spam.

Paid subscriptions—online and otherwise—can be difficult to track down. You can scour credit card and checking account statements to find them, but that’s tedious and might not be complete. While there are apps, such as Rocket Money, that say they will remove subscriptions, I suggest a more comprehensive approach.

Close any accounts—credit cards, bank accounts and so on—in the deceased’s name, which means any paid subscriptions can’t be renewed. If you’re the surviving spouse, also close all joint accounts, and open new ones in just your name.

I contacted the three credit bureaus to inform them of Dorothy’s death. I also placed a note in my credit file to explain why I closed our joint accounts. With any luck, this will eliminate any further use of the accounts and avoid any impact on my credit score.

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