Here we are in a new year, time to get organized.  I’m not talking about  straightening the kitchen junk drawer. Time to get serious about our password situation.  I Googled passwords today and in 58 seconds there were over 3 million hits.  How is that even possible?  

Where do you keep your passwords?  In the file marked, Miscellaneous, or next to the computer so they are handy?  Is someone really going to break into your house and spend time looking for the little post it notes with a scribbled combination of twelve characters  including, numbers, letters, (some caps), along with #$%&?  Only to discover magic entrance to your Waste Management account. 

Speaking of Waste Management, I don’t understand why we need a password to check the holiday pickup schedule.  Doesn’t it make more  sense to just post the damn schedule.  Surely an engineer can come up with a pie chart, graph or algorithm that states if your garbage is picked up on Monday you are good this week but if pick up is on any other day it will run a day late.  Do I really need a secret password for this garbage information?   

When I got my first computer at work the whole password thing was a novelty.  It was almost like belonging to a secret club and I was the head Poo Pa. I knew something no one else knew, I was indeed special. The whole feeling special thing wore off after the first ten or twelve passwords. Then came changing passwords every three weeks.  Now it has reached the point of absurdity even at home. 

We have passwords for camping in Georgia, Florida and Texas, all different, of course.  Then there is the password to order filters for the refrigerator, RV trader, in case we want to buy another RV, KOA and Good Sam so we can park the one we own.  

Humor aside, I recently read an article, concerning passwords, written by Lisa Milk.  Lisa lost her husband suddenly.   It was a tragic situation made all the more difficult by the fact that she didn’t have passwords for the accounts she needed.  I hope none of us are ever in a similar situation.   

Here is the condensed article from the AARP Bulletin.  

Lisa Milk wrote – 

 It happened again recently. I upgraded the operating system on my computer and suddenly couldn’t connect to my home’s Wi-Fi account. It was in my name, but my late husband, Benjamin, had set it up and created the password.

Benjamin and I were married for 46 years. He died four years ago, after a harrowing battle with brain cancer. Ever since I have been both missing him and missing clues that would unlock the secrets of our digital and financial lives.

I was newly bereaved when I was first locked out of one of our joint accounts, our home email. I contacted the email provider. The conversation did not go well.

“How can I help you, Mr. B. Milk?”

“I am not Mr. B. Milk. I am his widow. He  died, and I can’t get into our email account.”

“So sorry for your loss, Mr. B. Milk.”

“No. I am not Mr. B. Milk. He died.”

“Can you answer your secret question, Mr. B. Milk, and then we can access your account? What was the first school you attended?”

Somehow, in all our years together, that had never come up. I took a guess. Wrong. Eventually, I had to hire an online computer firm that, for $149, “scrubbed” my iMac. I got a new password and new secret question and was able to get back into our email.

Benjamin and I shared a life, but I soon learned that we didn’t share everything. We talked about major expenditures. But there were dozens of little things concerning our finances that we never discussed. Confronting the paperwork and bureaucracy precipitated by the death of a spouse, I was overwhelmed by the unexpected complications.

Benjamin’s illness hit us like a lightning strike. At age 75, he seemed remarkably healthy, with a slim, boyish body and a head of silver hair that friends envied. He was chairing a meeting of our condo board in suburban Maryland when he noticed that he was having trouble finding words, and his right hand was trembling.

Ten days later, Benjamin was diagnosed with one of the most deadly forms of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme. While dealing with treatment, he tried valiantly to get his papers in order. He even pulled together all of his passwords — a dozen different combinations of letters and numbers — and put them in an email in that joint account. But he never told me what the email was called.

After he died, I spent weeks combing through our online inbox looking for the mystery message. He didn’t make it easy. Bad guys trolling would never have found it. I read message after message until I found the passwords in a file labeled “numbers.rev.”

I never did find the answers to his secret questions. His first pet? His childhood best friend? The first street where he lived? I’ve had to ask his brother. And I’ve had to remember to tell my children the answers to mine.

Looking back, I divide my ignorance into two categories: things I should have known and things I couldn’t have known.

I should have known the whereabouts of the documents for what we owned. Like many couples, we thought we had lots of time to arrange our affairs. At a time when it was all I could do to get dressed in the morning, it was hard to hunt for bank records, deeds, insurance policies and investment records, let alone the passwords and secret questions that are the “open sesame” to access assets.

One of my first tasks as a widow was to file Benjamin’s will at the county courthouse. Our will was so old that it contained provisions for guardianship of our children, who are now grownups and have children of their own.

As I expected, we had named each other as beneficiaries of our IRAs and shared ownership of our home. But I didn’t realize that my husband had one small investment account without a beneficiary. Because his account totaled less than $50,000, it was considered a small estate under Maryland law and probated quickly.

As part of the probate process, the estate was advertised in the local paper. Within days I received a call from a man claiming to be from a Delaware law firm representing Benjamin’s creditors. I told him to put his claim in writing, and I never heard from him again. I’ve since learned that some unscrupulous people check obituaries and immediately apply for credit cards in the name of the deceased. Luckily, my son had notified the three major credit agencies right after Benjamin died so nobody could claim his identity.

That was just the beginning of dealing with “death duties.” The conventional wisdom to grieving spouses is not to make major decisions for a year. What they don’t tell you is that you’ll be too busy dealing with minor ones.

Benjamin didn’t have life insurance. But he did have an IRA, an investment portfolio, Social Security benefits, Medicare, a Medicare supplemental insurance policy and that small forgotten investment account. Notifying each government agency and financial institution required a raft of phone calls, notarized forms and multiple meetings. No wonder I was advised to request at least a dozen original death certificates with raised seals!

If Benjamin and I had been better organized, I might have been spared some of the unpleasant surprises. But not all of them. When I called our insurance company to report my husband’s death, they immediately raised my automobile insurance rate. Their agent explained that a single driver is a greater insurance risk than a couple sharing a car.

Soon after, I notified our primary credit card issuer. They immediately canceled my credit card. It turned out that Benjamin was the owner and I was merely a user. The bank representative explained that as a user, I was not required to pay any balance owed, but they would take it up with the estate. If I overpaid, I would not get a refund. Since I was the representative of the estate, I paid the bill — to the penny.

I’ve since discovered that I’m not the only one who thought there was more time. One widow found herself with a huge and valuable gun collection. It took nearly a year to find the paperwork for each gun, sell it and deal with the proceeds as part of the estate. Another woman hadn’t the heart to ask her sick husband about his beloved sports car. “It felt ghoulish,” she said.

I met a widower who had to untangle his mother-in-law’s finances. His wife had always handled that. A neighbor in her late 70s had never written a check in her 50-plus years of marriage. When her husband died, she wasn’t even sure which bank they used. 

My four years of widowhood have taught me that grief has no expiration date. It is OK to set your own timetable. I don’t have to decide today or tomorrow what to do with Benjamin’s coin collection. It doesn’t take up much room. There are still surprises that catch me unawares. Our insurance agent sent Benjamin a birthday card recently. He still gets requests to connect on LinkedIn. But not all of the surprises are unhappy ones. A month to the day after Benjamin died, I found an email he wrote to me the night before his brain surgery. In it, he offered advice on what I should keep and what I should sell, friends to consult and advice to ignore. 

My thanks go out to Lisa for making us aware how things can go wrong during an already difficult time.  We often say we should be better organized.  Maybe passwords would be a good starting point. 


11 replies
      • Kitty
        Kitty says:

        Carrie 30 minutes is a good start, but it has to be 30 minutes every chance you get.It ok to do in baby steps. Good advice cause my husband has no clue either.

        • Carrie Bonello
          Carrie Bonello says:

          If, l’they’ told us in the very beginning how many passwords we’d be using maybe we’d have given it more thought. But one password at at time lead us to 57 passwords, all different.YIKES

          Thanks for reading me!, Kitty

  1. Pat
    Pat says:

    Post it notes sounds organized to me. People wouldn’t believe the scraps of paper, magazine edges, etc. that my passwords are written on. “Most” of them are at least in one drawer now. I plan to get all that squared away some day. I promise, I really do.😩

    • Carrie Bonello
      Carrie Bonello says:

      It’s just that there are passwords for EVERYTHING some are important and others seem to be a waste of time.

  2. Ruth Dickens
    Ruth Dickens says:

    Thank you Carrie. This is valuable information. I am guilty of scattering my passwords around. I think my husband is much more organized. But I know that it is something that I must address! I appreciate you sending Lisa Milk’s article!


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