Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thoughts on Passages

For the geekish and non-geekish among us, there are some prudent stops to make prior to passage or incapication - some fairly well established, some fairly new. As I've discussed, my father passed this last December after a long illness, and browsing Slashdot this morning brought several thoughts more or less together.

Namely, that there's more to the whole project of getting dead these days than simply keeling over and discovering objective evidence of the afterlife. Let me note early on that I am not an attorney, I am not writing as an attorney, nor do I play an attorney on television - I'm merely writing as a son who has and is jumping through the hoops of his fathers passing.

It used to be that you'd (if you were prudent) make out a will and pretty much be done with it. Then, with advances in medical science, living wills (aka, a "pull the plug NOW" document) became increasingly popular and now seem a downright basic document to accompany a will. With advances in non-medical technology, yet a third layer (and maybe fourth) of document seems increasingly wise.

You (and hopefully your attorney) write a will to allocate your assets, settle your estate, and stop potential fights among heirs. Simply put, "who gets what, when, and where is that what?". A nice accompaniment, if you can pull it off is a pre-planned pre-paid funeral that is locked down to a fare-thee-well with the most complex decision available to heirs the choice of flowers at any ceremonies - if folks are ever going to fight, when they are all wrought up and grieving is one of the very most likely times for them to do it seems only prudent to short circuit that entire process before it begins. Think prevention. Old-fashioned, but still necessary stuff.

Depending on what state you have the misfortune to get laid up in, living wills and their various co-conspirators by other names vary in their validity from being legally binding to mere moral requests, the difference being that a judge will back up the first, and we'll all think mean'n'nasty things about you in the second case (but not much else bad will happen). Still, even in states where "moral suggestion" is as good as it gets, something is better than nothing when it comes to facing the potential of months and years of inescapable misery as ones relatives and associates stand around fretting about what to do, yet without the authority or gumption to actually make a decision. Someone who has the gumption, who knows your desires in advance, and who has if at all possible the authority to carry them through is clearly a good thing.

Finally, the new part that the Slashdot article addressed - someplace safe, and with a degree of security you feel comfortable with, keep a collection of your userid's and passwords to your emails, to online investment portals, to your physical computer(s), etc.

Don't create the mystery hard drive layout of doom, where the Top Level Directory is AAA, and the directories beneath it are labeled "aaa1", "aaa2", "aaa3" with no explanation left behind - and then tuck all of your investment, tax, and personal records into PDF files that you then drop into this structure that only you understand. Unless you're in some kind of black hole environment where such things are required, don't do it - think of the nice folks who will have to find such records for your survivors!

Should you be struck by lightning or have a bus fall upon you from the skies - it makes things much easier and cheaper for your survivors, and cuts way back on the amount of quality attorney and courtroom time/expense (or time/expense with forensic IT folks) if you've tucked away a complete list of your computer, online, and other userid/passwords carefully away.

Probably the best scheme I've heard of was when a gentleman was notified he was terminal, he took out a number of post office boxes and safe deposit boxes for friends (in his name) which, the last I heard, they have then kept up with cash only payments in the years since his death...and his widow never had to worry about lawn mowing or handyman repair issues. Not everyone is quite that enthused about their privacy, but it's still out there if you want to work for it - less creative and resource-intensive measures do exist.

In short, getting dead responsibly is somewhat more complex today than it was even a few years ago - you can make things a lot easier for them as survive by providing them with viable means to get at not just your physical information (files and such), but your electronic data as well once you've gone.

Here's hoping none of us need worry about it in any immediate sense for a good long while.

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