Alert the next of kin. And Netflix.
February 22, 2012 6:48 PM   Subscribe

How do I make my passwords available to loved ones if I die suddenly, but keep them secure while I'm alive?

I'm relatively young and don't have a general purpose lawyer.

Is there a way I can make sure my family can access all of my online accounts if I die suddenly, but keep them from doing so while I'm alive? Writing all of my passwords down and handing them to my mother in a sealed envelope seems really insecure, and I change them regularly. I'm looking for a clever yet simple technological solution. I'd like to be able to revoke access if something bad goes down in the future. I'd also like to be alerted if someone tries to access this information before I die.

There are some tiny online companies that will do stuff like this for you, but I don't trust them to stay in business indefinitely.

Is there an obvious way to do this that I'm not considering?
posted by anonymous to Technology (24 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Got a friend you trust? Tell them your password(s) and that they can give that information your family if you happen to die suddenly. But only after they've gotten rid of the incriminating photos.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:53 PM on February 22, 2012

You could use something like KeePass to manage your passwords, and give a copy of the master password to someone for safekeeping (maybe in a safe deposit box?)
posted by blind.wombat at 6:55 PM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

This is why God gave us safe deposit boxes at the bank. :)

Alternatively, there are services that do this.
posted by SMPA at 6:56 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Also, you don't need this to last until you die. You just need it to last until someone comes up with something better.)
posted by SMPA at 6:57 PM on February 22, 2012

I would get a safety deposit box and keep the master password to my master password keeper program in there, along with directions for next of kin. I don't want to keep running to the bank every time I change a password.
posted by chairface at 6:59 PM on February 22, 2012

When my dad died, we were sort of pleased to figure out that he had a Google document with all of his passwords pretty well in it. This was very very helpful, if not particularly secure. Since we had access to his computer and his email, we could get into this document which we had formerly not known existed. So you should think if you want this to be available to someone with access to your apartment [then write it down in your house] or someone with your phone [least secure, but maybe phone + password] or computer or something. More to the point, if people know the answers to your "secret questions" and have access to your inbox, they can reset your passwords anyhow. It was a big hassle to try to change some of the services that were in my dad's name [cable, phone, utilities] because they all wanted us to fax them death certificate paperwork, but we could go through the "Chat with a representative!" function on most websites and as long as we could answer the challenge questions, we could do all sorts of things.

And a caution about safe deposit boxes. If you go this route, and it's a good one, I suggest getting a joint account with someone. I just got a box and it's co-owned by my sister. She has a key. She doesn't live anywhere near me but if something happens to me, she can get into the box. If she tried to get into it at any other time I'd know about it. If you don't go this route, the bank may not let someone in to the box until crap goes through probate which might be a while, so that might not be an optimal solution.

Optimally what you want is SOMETHING where you keep all the passwords [so that you can change them] and that thing is protected by some sort of password and that password is only available to someone with access to _______. You can fill in those blanks.
posted by jessamyn at 7:02 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding KeePass, and its master password scheme, then you just have to put that password someplace safe. Actually, that brings up the old backup question, since a password to a file that's lost is worthless. Which then leads to the question of how tech-knowledgeable your surviving spouse/relative is, and whether they would understand the significance of a digital password vault. You could do an educational video (like they do on YouTube). Then this leads to the question of whether the person died in a fire or flood along with their computer. I think these are outlier situations, but I thought I should mention them.
posted by forthright at 7:23 PM on February 22, 2012

I think you could put a provision in your will to allow people access to the passwords. Your lawyer can advise you on how to do that. You'll just have to update the list as you update your passwords.
posted by elizeh at 7:41 PM on February 22, 2012

You're probably overthinking this. Buy a 20 dollar locking fireproof box at the store. In it, place your valuable documents (birth certificate, passport, etc) and an envelope containing a list of your passwords. Keep the key someplace safe, like your key ring. Most come with a second key that you could give to a trusted family member.

It's pretty ideal because it will deter casual snoopers, but in the worst case, they could get the box cut open pretty easily.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:43 PM on February 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

blind.wombat and forthright have it. 1Password/KeePass/LastPass can store all your passwords (and I'd recommend you use something like this anyway) behind a master password, and you could put the master password in your will/some other safe place.
posted by andrewcilento at 7:58 PM on February 22, 2012

If you are diligent and consider your email secure, you could create an email to your mom (or whoever) with passwords in it, set it to get sent a week from now, and set yourself up with one or more reminders to delete that email before it can get sent. (I use the reminders app on my iphone for this kind of thing.) Every week you're still alive to prevent the email from getting sent (in Outlook I think you just have to delete it from Drafts), check to see if any passwords are outdated, but if not, just paste the whole thing into a new email.
posted by lakeroon at 8:17 PM on February 22, 2012

I may be reading more into this question than intended, but it seems to me the likely reason for wanting someone to have access to passwords is to allow them to have access to accounts without going through the "legal steps". If that is not the case, all you need is to leave a list of accounts and/or sites which have assets or information. The contents of these can then become a part of your estate process, which is usually extended.

If you are trying to avoid the legal process and expedite access, neither a will nor a safe deposit box are likely to achieve that end. A safe deposit box might work, if you share access with another person and they can get there before the bank learns of your demise. In that case they could also get there before your demise.

Otherwise, I think you are down to the option of choosing to provide information, or access to information, to a person or persons who, if they chose, could access that information, and the assets, etc. prior to your death and without your further permission. If you don't have anyone in your life you would allow to have that possibility, you probably are better off just leaving the list of accounts, etc. and let things go through legal channels. This is especially true if you would be counting on this person to then share the assets they gained access to with others of your choosing.
posted by uncaken at 8:18 PM on February 22, 2012

Create a Word document or text file on your desktop, name it something that has meaning only to your SO or other person(s) who will need it, password it and give them that password and file name. In the file, make a list of where all critical business and personal accounts are held (banks, investment companies, credit cards, insurance, web sites, etc.), but without account numbers or other access details. Put the details into a software vault like 1Password, KeePass or LastPass.

The document contains only the vault's master password. (For added security, encode that password in some simple way which your confident can remember -- shuffled, substitution, first character of each word in the first sentence, whatever.) Make sure the file is included in routine backups. The list won't need to change often, but your account passwords and security hints can change as often as you like. If something is compromised or a better vault solution comes along, simply update the Word doc to reflect the new master system.

Very limited technical skill is needed to find and open a file on your desktop. My SO has chosen to put a printed copy in a safe deposit box, knowing that it will likely be out of date when needed, but as a reminder to look for it. My trusted CPA, who is technically savvy, will help using all the information.
posted by peakcomm at 8:29 PM on February 22, 2012

I few years ago I was asked this same question and was hired to help a brilliant entrepreneur build and market this exact system. What we found was that this was a massive market and nobody is actually investing in the security needed to house this kind of information. To build a system strong enough to securely hold your data takes a lot of time and investment. NONE of the sites here had anything near the level of security we were looking at and as such, even today, I wouldn't use them. However, the question about what is known as "Digital Succession" is an important one.

You may be comfortable with what's out there today, so here are some of the highlights of the research:

1) There is another thread about this on
2) I connected with Evan from TheDigitalBeyond and found him to be THE expert in the space. The site has a lot of resources for the type of solutions you're looking for.
3) There are a number of other sites like LegacyLocker, MyPersonalVault, and Entrustet.

If your data isn't linked to anything that can be used to hack your financial or social networks or steal your identity, the links and resources on the blogs should give you everything you need.

I hope you don't need the service for a long time to come. :)
posted by at 8:55 PM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Divide your passwords into multiple fragments and give the pieces to different family members. When you're dead, they can talk amongst themselves and put the fragments back together.

If you want to get tricky, you can encrypt the fragments, or create a fragment that provides instructions to decrypt other fragments. Alice has the key to Bob's fragment, which tells them to talk to Charlie to unlock Dave's fragment, and so on...

It'll be a fun puzzle for your loved ones to work together to untangle after you're gone.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:02 PM on February 22, 2012

Low-tech option:
I keep a a-z index book - an address book. It lives in my secret hiding spot in my house (which, for all you know, may be in plain site - it's that innocuous). My partner knows what and where it is. No one else would have a clue. This is a much cheaper, and I think much more secure option than almost any digital solution on the market as I know each and every day where it is and who has access to it.
posted by Kerasia at 10:11 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also know that the conditions of some of the digital accounts you hold may not allow the account to be passed over to another user. Some will terminate the account on your death (if the company responsible were to ever notice it).
posted by Trivia Newton John at 10:44 PM on February 22, 2012

I'm no lawyer and this isn't legal advice, but: Just for information's sake, do NOT put the list of passwords (or even more importantly, your will!) in a safe deposit box: when someone dies, their safe deposit box is sealed until after the estate is settled --- which means anything in there is totally unreachable until after probate; this could be months or even a year or more. This might be okay if you're alright with a lenghtly delay until your survivors can get to your list of account passwords, but if your will is in there? Your will would be useless, and probably your estate would be settled without it, just as if you didn't even have a will.
posted by easily confused at 4:26 AM on February 23, 2012

I keep my passwords in passwordsafe and have copies of the actual encrypted file kicking around in lots of places. The master password for my pwsafe file is in a sealed envelope in the small lockbox/safe in my house. It's mostly in there in case I'm unexpectedly incapacitated and my partner needs to wrangle all my stuff until I'm back online and ready to deal. (Having ended up with an unexpected hospital stay a few years back, it's a scenario I made a point to provide for going forward.)
posted by rmd1023 at 5:31 AM on February 23, 2012

Like easily confused states the Probate process will delay access or distribution by months. Even if you have named an executor, they have no legal rights until approved by the courts. OTOH a joint safe deposit box is co-owned, and stays accessible to both owners-dead or alive.

I worked for an older Bachelor once who had a series of envelopes taped to his bed. Each addressed an area of concern like his funeral, personal possessions, etc. Not exactly secure, but easily accessible.

Access to a secure lock box in your house may be contested by relatives, so if you go that route leave it and the key with a trusted relative or friend.
posted by Gungho at 5:55 AM on February 23, 2012

One option is to use a Secret Sharing Scheme. You make a key, split it into N files, and each file goes to someone you trust. When creating the key, you get to decide how many keyholders must collude (M) to extract the key. (So you could give one each to wife, lawyer, and best friend, but only require that any two of those files are necessary to recover the key. You can pick and N and M.)

The most popular implementation of a SSS that I know is an open-source project called ssss:
posted by introp at 6:48 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

By no means have I completed a safe and secure method of sharing passwords (master or otherwise) with my loved ones in the event of an emergency. There's a waiting list on safe-deposit boxes at all my banks, so I'm trying to use 1Password with the master key in the fire-resistant safe.

But my family finds it difficult to memorize the "complicated" 1Password master key I set up, much less remember the combination to that safe. Add to that the fact that they would have to log onto my computer, and that's three passwords they have to remember in addition to any of their own.

I thought about syncing my password repository with my DropBox account and installing both apps on their computers, but that doesn't solve the "keep passwords secure while I'm alive" part.

I think, though, for your situation you will probably do well with a password repository like KeePass or 1Password, and giving your family the master key and access password to a guest account on your computer in a sealed envelope. I don't think it will prevent unauthorized access; just limits it to a select few points, and it certainly can't notify you if someone does decide to peek behind the curtain. And in the event something bad happens in your relations, you can change the master key.

It might be the best compromise between access and security, but it depends on how much you trust your family to uphold their moral responsibility in both honoring your wishes and respecting your living privacy. Or how secure they treat things in their possession.
posted by CancerMan at 9:40 AM on February 23, 2012

I've heard it called a Dead Man's Drop in the spy novels. You set up a service to email all your passwords and logons to whoever is important to you, but only if it hasn't received a signal from you after X amount of time (1 week say). Then, just keep re-hitting the timer (say, when you log into your system on a startup script). As long as you are alive and keep hitting the reset button, nothing gets sent. When you die and nobody can log in, after X amount of time it sends them out.
posted by spatula at 4:13 PM on February 23, 2012

I go for the simple approach: one or a couple passwords in an envelope in my nearest desk drawer, maybe with my signature across the sealed flap. One password would be to my dropbox account, that has a file with all other passwords in it. Easy to get to, easy to open, but I would know quickly if it has been accessed (just pull it out and look at it frequently). Of course this doesn't protect you from a dishonest housemate / jilted lover, but presumably if your file is compromised and you are still alive, you can do something about it and get your accounts back.
posted by marble at 8:25 PM on February 23, 2012

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