When you die, what happens to your online accounts if your family can’t unlock your phone? [Ask ZDNet]


Welcome to another installment of Ask ZDNet.  


In the mailbag this week: How to get your digital affairs in order so your loved ones can access your online accounts after you pass away; how to keep a water-cooled PC running properly; and why running a Windows “debloater” might not be such a good idea.

If you’ve got a question about any of the topics ZDNet covers, we’ve got your back. Questions can cover any topic that’s related to work and technology, including PCs and Macs, mobile devices, security and privacy, social media, home office gear, consumer electronics, business etiquette, financial advice… well, you get the idea. 

Send your questions to [email protected]. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t guarantee a personal reply, but we do promise to read every letter and respond right here to the ones that we think our readers will care about. 

Ask away. 

What happens to your online accounts if you die and your next of kin can’t unlock your phone?

I’m worried that using two-factor authentication could cause real problems for the people you leave behind. What’s the solution?

An astonishing amount of our activity now takes place online, especially financial stuff. The good news is that most financial institutions have well-established procedures for handling your untimely demise. If your next of kin can hand over a proper death certificate, whoever’s handling the estate can have access to their accounts.

But for most online services, you’ll have to jump through some serious hoops if you can’t supply the proper credentials to sign in. The acrobatics can reach an extreme degree of difficulty if 2FA is involved.

If the deceased person’s mobile number is on your family account, you can contact the mobile provider to have the number transferred to you. If you don’t have access to the account, the executor of the estate can contact the mobile provider to perform the transfer. Here are instructions for the three big mobile carriers in the U.S. If you have a different carrier, you should be able to find similar instructions on their support site.

Tombstone With Login Fail Message

The onus is on you to get your digital affairs in order so that your survivors can sort out your stuff after you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.

Jake Albaugh / ZDNet

For other types of accounts, including email and social media, you’ll run into more serious roadblocks. Google, for example, says that it might provide content from a deceased user’s account to immediate family members but will not provide passwords or other login details. Facebook has a similar policy. And Apple makes it crystal clear that the only way it can remove the passcode lock for an iPhone is by erasing the device.

The onus is really on you to get your digital affairs in order so that your survivors can sort out your stuff after you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. The easiest way to do that is to write down the username and password for your email account and the passcode for your phone; if you use a password manager, include instructions for accessing its contents, too. Store that document in a safe place with other important papers, including your will and life insurance policy. And make sure whoever’s left behind knows where to look for those documents. 

Do I need to do anything to keep my water-cooled PC running properly?

I purchased a gaming PC with a liquid cooling system last year. I regularly clean out the dust in the system, including the liquid cooling radiator. However, what about the coolant fluid itself? I cannot see a reservoir to check the level so I assume it is a closed system. Should I assume the cooling system will last for the life of the PC? Do I need to replace the coolant fluid regularly?

There’s probably nothing you can do that stresses out a PC more than playing an action-packed full-screen game at high frame rates. All that stress generates heat, which has to go somewhere. A simple fan or two is usually good enough on PCs that do light business tasks. But rigs with high-powered CPUs and GPUs can benefit from liquid cooling systems.

To answer your question, I asked Kyle Harbinger, who’s been building and repairing PCs for many years in the Albany, NY area. You can find him on Twitter as @bruns_computers.

In a closed loop system, there isn’t any maintenance needed other than occasionally blowing the dust out of the radiator and fans with some canned air. A closed loop system usually just has a cooling block (heatsink) on top of the processor. The pump sits on top of the heatsink and then the whole unit attaches to the motherboard directly over the CPU. The tubes then run from the pump to the radiator.

In an open system, those tubes would be connected to a reservoir where you can add or change the coolant. Open systems do require some maintenance, topping off the coolant if needed and also replacing it every year or two depending on the usage.

On either type of system, it’s a good idea to remove the heatsink every two or three years to clean off the old thermal paste and apply new paste. For really heavy gamers, it might be appropriate to do this service every year, because the thermal paste dries out from the heat. I recommend leaving that sort of work to an experienced computer service/repair professional. I’ve seen a couple systems get messed up when someone tries to remove and/or replace the heatsink and paste and it doesn’t get done properly.

If you’re interested in learning more about these cooling systems, see “How Liquid-cooled PCs Work,” from the good folks at HowStuffWorks.

Is this Windows 11 “debloater” utility safe to run?

A friend recommended a Windows 11 “debloater” utility. He swears it made his PC run faster, but I’m skeptical. What’s the risk?

People have been complaining about “bloat” in Microsoft’s flagship OS for as long as I can remember. They used to be called performance optimizers, and they were mostly snake oil, in my experience. These days, utilities that promise to streamline your Windows 11 experience tend to be scripts (usually free) that remove apps, disable services, clean out the Windows registry, and change default settings, all in the name of greater performance.

On modern PCs with sufficient system resources, you will see marginal benefit at best from this sort of indiscriminate brush-clearing, and you run a significant risk of causing additional problems that will cost you far more troubleshooting time than you’ll save in an entire year. I went through the issues reported by users on one popular GitHub-hosted script and found a staggering range of complaints, ranging from “breaks sleep mode on my laptop” and “all my desktop icons turned black” to “most things on my pc are now broken.”

Then, of course, there’s the risk that one of these scripts will add malicious software, as one popular script was discovered to be doing earlier this year.

If you have older hardware that can’t be upgraded, you might benefit from reducing the impact of apps and services that run in the background. But you don’t need one of these all-purpose scripts to accomplish that.

Also: How to speed up your old Windows PC or Mac

Send your questions to [email protected]. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t guarantee a personal reply, but we do promise to read every letter and respond right here to the ones that we think our readers will care about. Be sure to include a working email address in case we have follow-up questions. We promise not to use it for any other purpose.  



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