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Death & Dying. Law & Technology.

Is there a catch to 'going paperless'?

Megan Yip

Photo by Image Source/Photodisc / Getty Images

Many of us get most, if not all, of our bills and correspondence with companies via email. For many reasons this is great. The environment wins, we don't have to do filing, our kitchen table isn't full of quite so much mail...the list goes on and on.

However, like most things in life, there's at least one catch. Some people fear data security. Others feel they have fallen prey to identity theft more often than when they dealt only with paper. I think that these can be valid concerns, but the big problem in my world has to do with what happens after you die. Namely, post death estate* administration.

In other words -When you kick the bucket, how the heck do we clean up all your stuff, if we don't know where it is?

One of the first steps that an executor, a trust administrator, a family member or a lawyer has to do when someone dies is take an accounting of all they have - debts and assets.

In recent history, the surviving family members would watch the mail for a month or so and as the bills and statements rolled in, they'd read them and make note of what accounts the person had. They could also thumb through the paper-filled filing cabinet of the deceased. Today, now that we've gone paperless, and often snail-mail-less, all of our account details, records of our debts and many of our assets are in our emails. Most documents and files are kept in online storage.   The ability to access your email after death is decided by the Terms of Service of the company who provides your email service and by the Stored Communications Act. Under the Stored Communications Act, which is part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, email is given extra protection as stored electronic communication, meaning your family or executor will probably be prevented from accessing it.

If your family, executor, or trust administrator doesn't have access to your email when you die, they will have a difficult time with the very first task they will be charged with after they bury you - taking an accounting of your assets and debts. 

Do you have a plan so it's easy to clean up your digital accounts after you're gone?

What about if you have an accident and become unconscious? Will your loved ones be able to pay your bills, communicate with your employer and contact your insurance company while you're in the hospital?  Chances are they won't find much helpful information written on paper at your house. It's also likely that they will violate a company's terms of services if they take the liberty to log into your account.  That's the catch to 'going paperless'.


*Estate is the legal word to refer to the property of a deceased person. Though it conjures up ideas of a large house on the English Countryside, everyone has an estate - some big, some small, some involving real property, some mostly liquid assets.


Legacies, Ethical Wills and the Farewell Email

Megan Yip

My work, including estate planning, thinking about digital assets, and community education has me thinking alot lately about different kinds of legacies.

In estate planning and in the dictionary, a person’s legacy is defined by the personal property and real property that a person leaves behind when they die. I think that is a very narrow definition of legacy, which is a concept that has been around for years.

First, I think we leave legacies in our wake every time we make big changes in our life, not only when we die. For example, we leave a legacy of sorts when we change jobs or career focus. We also leave a mini or micro legacy when we move our family and social life from one community to the next.

Second, I think that the importance of what we leave in our wake, when we make a change or when we die, is more vast than our property. This is a historical concept captured in the ancient tradition of the ethical will - which is a letter that shares personal values and instructions for those one leaves behind.

I see a resurgence of the ethical will right here in Silicon Valley in the tradition of the Farewell Email sent to a person’s teammates when they leave a position that they have been fully dedicated to for years.  The writers don’t just send them to their teams, they often also post them for a wider audience. If you want to read a few, just go to Medium and search: “farewell”. They can be quite addicting, especially if you’ve been known to serial watch or read commencement speeches this time of year.

Do you see micro-legacies or modern ethical wills in other parts of your life? Are ethical wills more or less important to you than a will or trust that will convey your tangible property?


More Resources on Ethical Wills:

Santa Clara University: A Testament to Ethics

Examples of Ethical Wills - Celebrations of Life

"Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die"

Megan Yip

Willie Nelson with fan in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport by Henry Yip

Willie Nelson with fan in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport by Henry Yip

Willie Nelson's 'gospel' song "Roll Me Up and Smoke When I Die," which is also the title of his auto-biography, lays out his wishes for 'funeral' and disposal, or final disposition of his body.   Leave it to Willie to be a good example of talking about something openly that the rest of us would rather keep private or deny all together, namely our death.  

Over the past couple weeks, I've had the opportunity to discuss mortuaries, funeral services, burials and final resting places with a small group of people planning for their deaths.  We learned, we laughed - mostly at 'inappropriate jokes,' and we shared about our priorities and hopes in life and death.

If you don't have a plan for what you'd like to have happen to your body when you die, keep in mind that burial, cremation and donation to science are not the only options today. 

In California, The Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, part of the Department of Consumer Affairs, serves as a good place to start your research about what options are legally available for body disposal and final disposition.

Today, the Urban Death Project launched their KickStarter campaign to develop their green decomposition plan for the disposal (or final disposition) of the deceased.

Here are some more "Alternative Final Resting Places" :

(not all are available in California)

Your ashes can be turned into gems.

You can be turned into a tree.

A water-based chemical process can reduce your body to ashes.

You can become part of an underwater habitat.

Your loved one can have you incorporated into their body art as a memorial.

If you know of other alternatives, share them in the comments below.