What was the name of your first Pet?  What street did you grow up on?  What was your mother’s maiden name?  These are just a few of the security questions that we all have to answer when setting up an account online, like an email account at Google, online banking, and similar online accounts.

So here’s another question:  If you were disabled or deceased, would your family be able access your online accounts?  Would they know where to find your user names, passwords and answers to security questions?

This is more than an academic question.  Your online accounts can have both monetary and sentimental value.  For example, you probably have credit card points and airline points.  These points can be quite valuable in real dollars.  However, some companies will not allow you to transfer your points.  If you die owning the points, they can be forfeited.  So it could be useful to use or transfer those points during your life, but if you are disabled, you won’t be able to personally take care of this.

Maybe your Power of Attorney could take care of it, but there can be at least 2 problems.  First, your Agent needs to be aware that federal law makes it a crime to access electronic records without authorization, so your Agent could be committing a crime if he or she accesses your account without proper authorization.  You need to provide written authorization so your Agent doesn’t have to worry about this issue.

Second, your Agent needs the user name and password and possibly answers to security questions to access the account.  Do you have a current list of all of your user names, passwords and answers to security questions?  Will your Agent be able to find it?  If it is on your computer, does your Agent have the user name and password for your computer?  If the answer to any of these questions is no, it could be very expensive and time consuming for your Agent to break the code or get access some other way.

Other online accounts can have monetary value such as a website or domain name.  Online gaming accounts can have value.  These are just a few examples.  Imagine how many more online accounts we will have in the next few years as more and more financial transactions and other parts of our lives are handled online.

Some online accounts have sentimental value.  For example, many people store family photographs on their computer or in the cloud.  You may be able to access the computer, but will you be able to access the cloud account?  Again, you will need written authorization or other legal authority, and you will need the user name, password and possibly answers to security questions.

A Facebook account may contain photographs or correspondence that the family wants to access and preserve.  There may be an online diary or blog that the family wants to preserve.  Even an email account may contain emails that you want to preserve for sentimental or other reasons.  The terms of service agreement for a Yahoo email account provides that the account is not transferable and the right to the contents of the account (including all emails) terminate upon your death.  Can your Executor access this account and legally get the emails?  Based on the terms of service, it looks like the Executor will not be able to get the emails, at least not without a fight with Yahoo.

So, bottom line, if you have any online accounts, you need to do two things.

First, you need to keep an up-to-date inventory of your accounts, with user names, passwords and answers to security questions, and your trusted family members need to know where to find the inventory or how to access it.

Second, you need to give your trusted family members legal authority to access your online accounts.