Expert Insights into Digital End-of-Life Planning | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Expert Insights into Digital End-of-Life Planning

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Numerous digital inheritances packed with the assets and privacy of the deceased. Unable to unlock the smartphone, it brings hardship to the bereaved. However, even if fortunately opened, there’s also a risk of becoming a “Pandora’s box” that could bring disaster to the bereaved.

Digital devices such as smartphones, PCs, and tablets are indispensable for living in modern society. However, while they are convenient, if a user is suddenly struck by death, managing their “digital inheritance” becomes problematic from that moment.

Some may manage their assets such as cherished photos, videos, and emails on their smartphones. Without means for their bereaved to unlock them, they quickly become a “black box” whose contents are unknown.

To avoid such worst-case scenarios, “digital end-of-life planning” has been in the spotlight since around 2015. Digital end-of-life planning, increasingly necessary in the future. What should we do, and what exactly is it? We spoke with Atsushi Iseda, representative director of the Japan Digital End-of-Life Association and lawyer, to find out.

In some cases, unlocking may take up to a year.

――First, please tell us about digital end-of-life planning.

“Digital end-of-life planning refers to preparing for digital inheritances. While there’s no legal definition, digital inheritances generally refer to data stored on digital devices like smartphones, PCs, and internet service accounts. For these digital inheritances, if no one besides the deceased knows the login passwords, it becomes quite difficult for family members to access them. To avoid such situations, digital end-of-life planning involves organizing digital inheritances in advance and preparing to share login passwords with family members in some way. That’s essentially what digital end-of-life planning entails.” (Note: All comments in quotes are from Mr. Iseda)

――Can’t manufacturers or specialists help if the login password is unknown?

“Manufacturers and telecom carriers typically do not support accessing the contents of devices like smartphones. You may have to rely on data recovery specialists, but companies willing to unlock smartphones are quite rare. Additionally, while it varies case by case, there’s a risk of significant costs, ranging from 200,000 to 300,000 yen for data recovery. Many people give up when they hear it could take half a year to over a year for data recovery depending on the case.

Moreover, concerning iPhones, some are set up to erase all data after ten consecutive incorrect login attempts. In trying repeatedly with what they believe might be the password, family members may inadvertently trigger data erasure.”

Birthdays of the deceased, birthdays of their partners, anniversaries, the day their favorite sports team won, etc. There are cases where trying passwords based on these hints can lead to a hit. However, the worst-case scenario is that all data gets erased if the allowed number of incorrect attempts is exceeded.

――What disadvantages arise for the bereaved from not being able to access the contents of the deceased’s smartphone?

“Issues arise from the funeral stage onward. Firstly, contacting attendees becomes problematic. Contact information of those close to the deceased is often stored on the smartphone. However, without access to the smartphone’s contents, it’s impossible to retrieve these contacts. While there’s a trend toward family-only funerals, there are still people who would want to inform others about the deceased’s passing.

There are also cases where choosing a photo for the deceased’s portrait becomes difficult. From the perspective of the family, they would want to use a nice photo from the deceased’s life. However, photos are now often stored digitally. Without access to the smartphone’s album, some families have been forced to use the photo from the driver’s license.”



――With the increasing cases of notifying death through the deceased’s SNS accounts like X and Facebook, accessing the smartphone or PC is essential.

“Be cautious as notifying through personal SNS accounts may violate terms of service. Also, publicly sharing funeral details could make one vulnerable to burglary. Careful consideration of the privacy settings is necessary.

On the other hand, the most serious issue is identifying the estate. From this year (2024), the new NISA has started, increasing online securities accounts, but without checking the deceased’s PC or smartphone, it’s necessary to meticulously review the deceased’s transaction details to understand their online accounts, which is very cumbersome. Additionally, the deceased may have owned cryptocurrencies.

Not being able to grasp the deceased’s assets is a significant problem. Not knowing about positive assets like securities or savings is problematic, but if ‘negative assets’ are also unknown, it could unexpectedly harm the bereaved. For instance, if the deceased had loans or co-signed debts, unless the bereaved renounce the inheritance, they will inherit these debts. There are cases where the existence of co-signed debts is discovered long after the inheritance has been settled, leaving the family in shock.

Subscription services, or subscriptions,are also a common issue. Many people are registered with multiple services for music, manga, etc. These subscription services vary case by case, but you may need to scrutinize credit card statements to identify and cancel subscriptions, or the charges will continue.”

Atsushi Iseda, an end-of-life planning lawyer and certified public accountant, has a philosophy of “eliminating those troubled by inheritance.” He co-authored the book “Second Edition: How to Find, Store, Preserve, and Conceal Digital Inheritances” (Nihon Kajo Publishing Co., Ltd.).

――In that case, families who are fortunate enough to unlock the deceased’s smartphone are happy, right?

“Not necessarily all good news. Since smartphones contain a wealth of personal information, opening them against the deceased’s wishes can, depending on the stored data, lead to difficulties for the family.”

――You mean discovering “inappropriate facts” that one didn’t want to know?

“An understandable example would be evidence of infidelity. For the family, it’s nothing but trouble. Even without going that far, most people have data they wouldn’t want anyone else to see to some degree. Personally, I think such data that individuals want to keep hidden can be broadly divided into two types.

Firstly, there is the embarrassing data for the person themselves. For instance, adult content or personal health records. I know a woman who records her weight daily and said she wouldn’t want her husband to ever see it, even after she’s passed away. Also, hobbies are kept secret from the family. Otaku-like hobbies are often kept private. It’s not catastrophic if revealed, but it’s embarrassing personally, so people want to keep it confidential. I think everyone can relate to having such things they’d rather keep private.

The other type is data that could bring trouble to the family. This includes exchanges with an affair partner or incriminating photos. Data related to abnormal behaviors or crimes, or notes criticizing others. There have been cases where a diary filled with criticisms of relatives was found after death. Data revealing the deceased’s hidden side can hurt the family. It changes how the deceased is perceived by the family if they find out. The deceased wouldn’t want such data exposed, and it causes distress to the family.”

――Then, please tell us about specific methods for digital end-of-life planning.

“Everyone has privacy that should be respected. For those who have data they don’t want others to see, I recommend sorting their digital inheritances before they pass away. Keep truly sensitive information on devices like smartphones and transfer necessary information for posthumous processing, such as online banking accounts or subscription IDs and passwords, onto a computer. You could also write this in an ending note.  Additionally, before passing away, make it clear to your family that it’s okay to look at the computer but to absolutely not look at the smartphone.

Of course, sharing information about login passwords for computers and where essential data is stored for family members is essential. If it’s data on your computer, you could use software like ‘Mamore-e’ to selectively delete sensitive data.

If you don’t have any particularly sensitive data, create a system to share login passwords for computers and smartphones with your family in case of emergencies. If you don’t want them known in your lifetime, write down passwords and put them in your wallet or passbook. If you live alone, you could put them on the refrigerator door. These places are highly likely for family members to check in case of emergencies, making it easy for them to find without prior communication.

Recently, many digital end-of-life services have been developed. The ‘Digital Keeper’ service, for example, sends information (such as login passwords) to a pre-designated email address in case of emergency.

I hope you consider arranging access to necessary information for your family in case of emergencies using various methods.”

When loved ones pass away, their families already suffer, working through the aftermath. Let’s work on digital end-of-life planning now to prevent further tragedies for them.

  • Interview and text Yutaka Sano

    Freelance writer. He is active in reporting and writing articles for magazines, the Internet, and other media, focusing on business, humanities, and other fields. He is the author of numerous books.

  • Cooperation for interviews Japan Digital End-of-Life Association

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