Gaining access to your loved one’s digital accounts
Where to look for account passwords
Start with your loved one's computer—many passwords should be saved there.
Try looking around the desk for the computer access password if you can't get in. A computer tech may be able to help you access the hard drive.
Phone passcodes are easier to guess, but be careful: You'll get locked out after too many wrong guesses.
If you have or can get email access or phone access, you can get into almost any account by clicking “Forgot password.”
At some point after your loved one passes away, you will likely need to gain access to their digital accounts and assets, whether to find important documents, transfer the accounts into your name, or close them entirely.
The magnitude of this task will depend on how much your loved one used online platforms—social media, subscription services, online financial portals, etc. Whether you need to log into their bank account or their social media pages, in most cases gaining access is not particularly difficult.
This can, however be an emotionally challenging endeavor for many people; logging on to a loved one’s accounts can feel intimate or even intrusive, especially these days when many of us do everything online. You may be entering a very private part of their life, so make sure to ask yourself if you’re strong enough for this right now. If you’re struggling, it is always useful to have a friend or family member who can be there with you.
If you already have access to your loved one’s email account, this will allow you to get into almost any of their digital accounts by entering their email address and clicking on “Forgot Password.” From there, you can reset the password by following the link that will be sent to their email address.
This will give you full access to your loved one’s account, which in the case of messaging accounts, social media, and the like means potentially seeing their communications with others and similar personal information. If this is a boundary you don’t want to cross, you can try to focus on only the things you need, or ask someone you trust to search for and find those for you.
Instead of accessing the contents of a loved one’s social media accounts, many families choose to make a final obituary post and then log out for good, memorialize the account, or simply deactivate it. Each social media platform has its own procedure for the latter options if you do not have direct access.
Looking for passwords
If you already know your loved one’s passwords (or can access their email), then for all but the most secure accounts, gaining access will be easy. If you don’t, you may want to try to find them.
First you’ll want to see if you can get into your loved one’s computer, as their account passwords will often be saved by the internet browser they used. In most cases you will still need a password to get into the computer, but one password is likely easier to find than many.
Check the area around their computer, or the desk where they usually worked. Many people write their password down on a sticky note or in a notepad and keep it nearby. You also might try to guess their password; it will often be a long shot, but you can always try the name of something or someone that was important to them. Also, if you know any of their account passwords or even the code word they used for their security system, try it here. Although it is less secure, many people reuse passwords for convenience.
Also check your loved one’s study or desk, if they had one, for an external hard drive or any flash drives. You may be able to simply plug one into your own computer and access it. If you cannot gain access to your loved one’s computer, it may also be possible to access its internal hard drive directly, depending on how it was set up. For most people, the best course of action in trying this would be to bring the machine to a computer service technician. They will likely require a copy of the death certificate and proof that you are an authorized representative, but if there is a way to access the computer they will.
A phone passcode or PIN is usually easier to guess than a computer or account password.
You can also try accessing their phone in order to gain access to their email. Some accounts will also allow you to reset the password with a confirmation code sent by text, and many people store passwords on their phones as well. Because it is numerical, a phone passcode or PIN is usually easier to guess than a computer or account password. Write down any obvious sets of numbers that come to mind: their birthday, the birthdays of those close to them, their anniversary or another important date, their address, their lucky number, and so on. There may be a limited number of times you can guess incorrectly, so limit your guessing. For example, you will have six consecutive attempts to enter the passcode for an iPhone before it becomes disabled, so try a couple of potential passcodes at a time.
Asking for access
If none of these methods work, you will have to contact the company or organization that your loved one had the account with. If all you need is to close the account, they will have a procedure that will allow you to do so, as long as you send them copies of certain documents.
However, if you want to gain access to the account itself, you are in for a challenge. State laws do not provide the executor or administrator of an estate with the authority to directly access digital accounts, and the companies that control them will often err on the side of protecting your loved one’s privacy.
The good news is that a law called The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) is now in place in most states. This law extends the definition of the assets that the executor or administrator of a person’s estate is responsible for managing to include “digital assets” as well. RUFADAA is meant to be a compromise between the privacy-protecting tech companies and families that need a legal path to accessing their loved one’s information. Companies don't simply have to give up digital assets, therefore; the executor will have to petition the court and explain why gaining access to these assets is necessary for the settling of the estate. In addition, the executor or the family have no rights to gain access to the contents of electronic communications like emails or text messages unless the person who died gave explicit consent to this while they were alive.
RUFADAA is written to protect the privacy of your loved one as much as possible while still giving you what you need to settle their affairs, which means companies are given a lot of power to decide whether to grant access and what they grant access to. If you can only demonstrate to the courts that you need one very specific digital asset, therefore, they may only send you a digital record of that asset and nothing more. They are also allowed to charge a fee for this. It is often in your best interest, therefore, to exhaust all other means of trying to gain access before relying on the company to help you out.
In the end, the vast majority of accounts can simply be closed rather than accessed, and that is relatively easy to do. And many of the documents or other digital assets you need are likely available elsewhere, such as filed at your loved one’s lawyer’s office, or simply printed out and kept in a folder in their desk. As you search for and gather the necessary papers and info, remember to take it at your own pace, and never hesitate to ask for help when you need it.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
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