As a sole trader, what happens to your clients if you die?

This isn’t a question I’ve asked myself until this week. And don’t stress, I’m totally fine. But one of my contacts has found their business in a state of concern following the sudden passing of their web-developer.

The specific issue? They commissioned a web developer to build a business admin tool, that they were hosting (via a 4th party), and that hosting will wrap up soon. And with that, ends their access to their business admin tool. It’s rather complex, made more unfortunate by the next of kin wanting little to do with the situation.

I understand this hesitation. It got me thinking about my clients and various sites/systems/tools that I have hosted on their behalf (on servers that aren’t even strictly mine). What happens if I die? And what will my partner be responsible for? It’s not that I keep her in the dark, but it’s just totally out of her wheelhouse.

Should I keep a list of usernames and passwords? Everyone will tell you “no”, as that’s a total security breach. Should I tell my partner how to access my business admin accounts? Probably not, on thinking about it. It would be too hard to remember the details in the event something catastrophic happened.

One approach was to seek legal advice and inform the window they were required to help. Surely there is some accountability on the part of next-of-kin (as sad as that is). But rather than heading down that path, I did some investigations.

Starting with the hosted tool (via a URL), I was able to find the domain that it was hosted on. This led me to do a whois lookup (available via command line and web tools) to find the administrative, technical and registrar contact.

Once I identified the name of the registrar, I, sure enough, found a memorial profile on heavenaddress.com. It’s sad when there are digital footprints around from someone who’s passed. Obviously, the memorial site is by design, but it was the other breadcrumbs that remain. Their ABN is still listed as active. Their business is still listed on the ASIC site. To all friends and family, he’s passed. But it seems the government has some loose ends.

He passed some 9 months ago, and there’s a number of specifics that require attention.

My client asked if I could ‘get the code and database’ or ‘hack it’, as it’s their business tool. As tempting as that may be, it’s not the right way to go about it. Yes, it’s their tool, they paid for it, but ethics and privacy matter, in life and death.

But the real path to follow is the web-host they used. This is where the database and executable code lives – for now. At some point, recurring billing will ensure this is closed down, and then things become harder.

After contacting the web-host, they have advised they have a recovery process, which is largely designed for this type of purpose. And that’s the path we’re now going.

But the question remains; As a sole trader, what happens to your clients if you die? The old adage of “what happens if you get hit by a bus?” has a little more reality now than it once did. But it did get me thinking.

As a sole-trader web-developer, I think I’m leaving my clients in good shape if something goes horribly wrong. There may be some questions on “what is where, and how do I get it / move it somewhere else”, but I really believe I’ve handed them as much as they need to make this happens. This is in the form of documentation, usernames, passwords (that I strongly advise them to change), FTP access, other ways to get administrative access, all the source-code if they wish to migrate, and so on. I’m sure that many clients don’t have the wherewithal to do this themselves, but they have the information to pass on to someone with technical aptitude.

It’s a bit of a reality check, and I’m confident we can resolve this via the ethical path. But it’s also highlighted that as much you need to consider your clients, you’ve really got to think about the state of affairs you’re leaving for your loved ones.

Note: This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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