Death-Defying Websites Pass Crucial Info to the Grieving

Services help the departed relay account numbers, passwords, and documents.

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Many of us have readied for our physical death by doing such things as getting life insurance and wills in place. Now a number of websites want to prod us into prepping our virtual selves for the afterlife. They're offering digital safekeeping for documents, online passwords, and other data that could prove crucial or comforting to grieving relatives and friends.

Some techies understand the death-defying power of the Internet. For years, programmers have coded computers to send E-mails if the user didn't enter a password in a timely fashion—say, every week. The notes originally went to supervisors or colleagues with needed passwords and instructions. They later included E-mails to friends and loved ones and were called "death switches," writes David Eagleman, who turned the concept into Deathswitch.com.

[See 6 Secrets to Saving Your Laptop and Data.]

Several sites arose from the personal experiences of entrepreneurs who tried to unwind the Web affairs of loved ones after they died. Jeremy Toeman conceived LegacyLocker.com after struggling unsuccessfully to get access to his grandmother's Hotmail account after she died. "I wanted to contact her friends to let them know of her passing," he says. In pondering his own mortality during a plane flight, he realized nobody would know the passwords to Web domains he owns.

For Joe Palmer, WeRemember.org arose partly from painful memories of his mom in repeated court fights with her family after her father died and his latest will couldn't be found. "Needless to say, we haven't spoken to that side of the family in over 20 years," he says. Most of us don't want to think about death, he adds, but consequences for survivors can be long-lasting.

Palmer says dealing with death is a natural evolution for consumers who increasingly move their lives online, to online banking, social networking, and photo sharing. "People understand that the Internet is getting safer over time, and they're willing to trust it with more."

Some security experts, however, think that it's risky to submit all one's valuable data to an online site, even though the sites use passwords and encryption to protect data.

[Read about services that make it easy to share photos and videos on the Web.]

Here is what sites offer to ease the ultimate digital transition:

LegacyLocker.com: The site goes beyond a typical list of accounts and passwords and actively manages them by periodically accessing accounts. It alerts users when it fails and prompts them to update the username and password on file. The site also uses a notably human touch after being notified of a death, with live staff members confirming it with two people designated by the account holder. The service also requires a copy of a death certificate. Then a "beneficiary" designated by the account holder will get the keys to the online assets. Users can write an accompanying letter or upload a video. They can also upload encrypted copies of documents, such as wills. Users can try a free version that covers three digital accounts that can be passed on to the one beneficiary. Or they can pay $30 a year or $300 a lifetime for unlimited assets and beneficiaries.

WeRemember.org: Focusing on the documents that are crucial to sorting out an estate, WeRemember notes that billions of dollars in life insurance benefits go unpaid simply because no survivors know the policies existed. Other estates go into costly probate because wills can't be found. Users fill out a simple profile with the names of insurers, investments, and beneficiaries. Account holders also note if they have a will and where it can be found. The site routinely monitors public and government databases for death notices before notifying beneficiaries. The notifications for now are by phone. The service is free, although there is a premium account that, for a fee of $30, provides a packet of claims forms and other help for beneficiaries. The site aims to earn most of its money from relationships with insurers, attorneys, and other sites that offer coverage, planning, and other services at WeRemember.