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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

For those left behind, a digital lifeline

For next of kin, accessing a loved one’s digital estate can be a difficult task

Svetlana Sussman, with her grandson, Tigran.
Svetlana Sussman, with her grandson, Tigran.(Harris Sussman)

I dismiss most incoming e-mail with a glance. Not this one. “My wife died,” said the subject line. “Apple can’t handle it.”

The e-mail came last month from Harris Sussman, 70, a cultural consultant and owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Somerville. He didn’t want much from Apple; just the right to use the iPad that his beloved Svetlana had bequeathed to him. But 17 months after her passing, Sussman was still locked out.

About 2.5 million Americans die every year, and most leave behind a digital estate: financial records, old e-mails, photos, and videos. And hardly any of us prepare our next of kin for dealing with this stuff. It is an oversight that has caused Sussman an extra measure of grief.

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Svetlana passed away in June 2013, of cancer. She was 53, a Russian immigrant who worked as an administrative officer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She left behind a husband, a son, a grandson, and the iPad that had accompanied her through 27 chemotherapy sessions.

Alas, she didn’t leave behind the password to her Apple account, so Sussman couldn’t erase the files on the device and make it his own.

“I’ve never yearned for an iPad,” Sussman wrote me. “It’s just that my wife left it for me to use, and I can’t.”

Sussman visited the tech support mavens at an Apple store, his wife’s death certificate in hand. He showed them her obituary posted at the MIT Sloan website. He told me that he has received inaccurate and contradictory answers from 13 Apple employees he has contacted in person or by phone. He even tried e-mailing Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive.

“It’s been a year of real agony, I’m sorry to say,” Sussman told me. “I have to prove who I am, I have to prove I was married, I have to prove to them my wife died . . . Now they’re asking me to get what they call a testimentary to prove that I have the right to her property.”

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A measure of Apple-bashing is justified here, but not too much. The process should never have taken so long. But an Apple spokesman noted that the company must be tough in such cases, to fend off thieves trying to reactivate stolen iPads. A feature called Activation Lock prevents anyone from wiping out the contents of an iPad without first entering the owner’s password. Because Svetlana hadn’t shared her password with Harris, he was locked out.

It is a good reason to store all your passwords in a digital vault, then share the key with your next of kin. I’m a longtime fan of LastPass Premium. For $12 a year, it provides password access through any desktop computer, smartphone, or tablet. I just need to remember a single master password for the LastPass account, and I’ve shared it with my wife, just in case.

For a more comprehensive approach, there are online services that help you create an inventory of your entire estate, from insurance policies to Facebook pages. Sites such as AfterSteps, Principled Heart and EverPlans semi-automate the process. There are electronic forms for typing in vital data such as your social networks, online retailers, credit card and bank account data, and tools for building a will and giving instructions about medical care and funeral arrangements. You can choose a friend or family member to carry out your last requests. These services generally cost between $45 and $75 per year, though EverPlans offers a basic free service.

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And there is a new service to help people whose relatives didn’t put their electronic affairs in order. WebCease is a Portland, Ore., company that finds a deceased person’s online accounts and helps the survivors shut them down. Founder Glenn Williamson, previously with Boston Internet security company Rapid7, came up with the concept when his mother died. He found 13 online accounts he never knew she had, including a forgotten credit card and 54,000 frequent-flyer miles.

Now his company charges $99 and up to track the digital footprints of the dead.

“We find accounts that you don’t know about,” said Williamson, “and we tell you what your end-of-life options are.” There’s no simple push-button solution, because companies have different post-mortem policies, and the next of kin must deal with each of them. But at least they’ll know where to start.

Sussman’s struggle finally ended last week, when an Apple executive sent him a code to unlock the iPad. But the bitterness hasn’t entirely faded.

“If my wife had some information on my iPad that it was vital for me to retrieve in a timely way,” Sussman said, “I would have been a basket case by now.”

He suggests that all digital device makers and online companies should ask new users to provide next-of-kin information. Not a bad idea, but corporate marketing departments won’t bite — too morbid. We’d better make our own arrangements. As Harris Sussman learned, sooner or later we’ll need them.

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.