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When you die, what happens to your online accounts if your family can't unlock your phone?

As our lives move increasingly online, our finances and history are hidden behind password-protected accounts. Here's how to get your digital affairs in order so your next of kin can sort things out after you're gone.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
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The onus is on you to get your digital affairs in order so that your survivors can sort out your stuff after you've shuffled off this mortal coil.

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An astonishing amount of our activity now takes place online, especially financial stuff. What happens to online accounts after their owner dies? If those accounts are protected with strong passwords and two-factor authentication, the people who are left behind could be permanently locked out.

The good news is that most financial institutions have well-established procedures for handling your untimely demise. If the next of kin can hand over a proper death certificate, whoever's handling the estate can have access to bank accounts, retirement accounts, insurance policies, and other assets.

But for other online services, you'll have to jump through some serious hoops if you can't supply the proper credentials to sign in. The acrobatics can reach an extreme degree of difficulty if 2FA is involved.

You can make the process easier by doing a little advance planning. You can also help other family members to get their digital affairs in order. 

The easiest way to do that is to write down the username and password for email accounts and the passcode for the phone that receives authentication requests; if you use a password manager, include instructions for accessing its contents, too. Store that document in a secure place with other important papers, including your will and life insurance policy. And make sure whoever's left behind knows where to look for those documents.

What if one of those family members passes away and you don't have the passwords and PIN codes you need to get things unlocked?

If the deceased person's mobile number is on your family account, you can contact the mobile provider to have the number transferred to you. That should allow you to reset passwords and respond to authentication prompts. If you don't have access to the account, the executor of the estate can contact the mobile provider to perform the transfer. Here are instructions for the three big mobile carriers in the U.S. If you have a different carrier, you should be able to find similar instructions on their support site.

For other types of accounts, including email and social media, you'll run into more serious roadblocks. Google, for example, says that it might provide content from a deceased user's account to immediate family members but will not provide passwords or other login details. Facebook has a similar policy. Apple will give you access to some types of content (photos, messages, notes, and so on) if the deceased set up a Legacy Contact and you have that code as well as a death certificate. But Apple makes it crystal clear that the only way it can remove the passcode lock for an iPhone is by erasing the device.


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