Amiram Hayardeny's father was a robust man with a booming voice until he developed Lou Gehrig's disease. Slowly, he lost his ability to communicate and, as the disease laid waste to his body, his ability to move.
Hayardeny's father died in 2013. A year later, Hayardeny said, a cousin his age died suddenly, leaving behind her three young children and husband.
"She never made 52," he said. "I'll be 53 next week."
The events shocked Hayardeny, a technologist who lives in Seattle, into thinking about his own mortality and how he wanted to prepare a legacy for his children. But instead of turning to the traditional estate planning strategies — wills, trusts and beneficiary designation forms that lawyers and financial planners help clients pull together — Hayardeny is using a new system called SafeBeyond that keeps written and video wishes safe and private until its users are gone or until a set time. SafeBeyond is one of several similar cloud-based systems.
"I'm not particularly afraid of death or shy about discussing it," Hayardeny said. "The way the site is put together, it kind of gives you some kind of comfort. It puts people at ease with the concept of you being gone."
Because these services are relatively new, though, they could become problematic to heirs if not used correctly, lawyers and planners said. And the nature of SafeBeyond and similar services — online and private except to those explicitly given access — also raises broader issues about digital assets that are in an estate.
"With digital assets, who is entitled to have access is a big issue," said Sharon Klein, managing director of family office services and wealth strategies at Wilmington Trust.
First, a little background about SafeBeyond. It was started by Moran Zur, whose father died when Zur was 25 and who nearly lost his wife, who was found to have advanced brain cancer in 2012.
When his wife's health improved, Zur raised money for the site. He focused it not on conveying a last message but on being a bank of many emotions and advice for different times in life.
"I look at it as emotional life insurance," he said. "We allow you to decide how you'll be remembered."
To that end, he said people need to designate a trustee for what they record or write and store in SafeBeyond. That person will have the responsibility of tracking down family and friends whose email addresses and phone numbers may have changed by the time they are supposed to receive the messages.
The site is free for now. It promises to update the technology so that today's iPhone video doesn't become tomorrow's Super 8 home movie when someone receives it in the future. In the event the company fails, Zur said, it will work to find people to let them download what they stored there.
Competitors include Incubate, which was co-founded by Michael McCluney, who lost his father when he was young and said he wished his father could have recorded advice for important moments in his life, like turning 16 or graduating from college.
"Something like that would have been incredible to have gotten," he said.
Last Thanksgiving, as the site was about to go online, he recorded his grandmother sending people holiday wishes. She died this year, and he said a half-dozen people would be receiving the message from her.
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"People recognize that this is an emotional experience we want to give," he said.
While the services are intended to help people stay in their loved ones' lives after they're gone, more than a few people questioned whether such a message might be disturbing to the recipient.
John Dadakis, a partner at Holland & Knight, said videotaping anything meant for heirs when you're sick could have unintended consequences, particularly if not everyone is happy with their inheritance.
"If a lawyer is not part of that situation and this person is going off half-baked and now all of a sudden this video surfaces in a probate contest, you have a lawyer standing there with his tongue hanging out," Dadakis said.
The purpose of SafeBeyond and other such apps is to give people a method to record personal messages whenever they want. But as with other forms of technology, the law of unintended consequences reigns, which is what worries trust and estate lawyers.
Advisers said people should be more focused on existing digital assets — from social media accounts to banking and brokerage accounts — and who will have access to them when the person who set them up is dead. Terms of service on many social media accounts state that the account will be closed when someone dies, and it may be difficult to find passwords to bank accounts.
"Let your executor know what your valuable digital assets are, how you want them handled, provide a mechanism to get access to your passwords and advise them of services you're using that would prohibit them from getting access," said Russ Haft, chief digital executor at Mylennium, a company that consults with families about their digital assets.