National Edition

Digital death: Preparing for your afterlife on the cloud

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 17 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

People know what to do with the physical things left behind after a loved one dies, but what about the digital legacy of social media sites, email accounts, digital photographs and music? Who controls that? Is there Internet life after death?


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Pamela Sailor did not want her brother David's friends to find out about his death on Facebook in September 2010.

"He had just graduated from college," she says. "Life was such a beautiful place for him."

As people found out, they posted things on David's Facebook page. Sailor, who works at a non-profit in Orange, Calif., monitored the page closely for inappropriate posts. Fortunately, she knew her brother's password and was able to more than just watch.

"Some people wrote inappropriate things," she says. "They didn't know better. The comments came from a good place, but they did not think about how it might affect somebody who just came to look and see how their friend was doing."

When people die, they leave behind more than physical objects. They also have digital assets such as email accounts, automatic bills, banking accounts and photos. If they do not leave instructions and passwords, loved ones may not be able to access those things.

According to digitalpassing.com, only seven states (Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Virginia) have laws helping people with access to digital assets. Other states such as Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Oregon are just beginning to address the problems of digital assets. But even if states do not have laws granting access to digital accounts of deceased people, there are simple steps people can take to help those left behind gain access to their digital assets.

Mourning differences

Karen Jones from Virginia Beach, Va., author of "Death for Beginners," says mourning is different for everybody. "Everybody has their own personal feelings," she says. "Planning for death is deeply personal. Cookie cutter solutions always get it wrong."

When Jones' friend died from pancreatic cancer, she continued to get notices from her friend's Facebook page. People posted things like, "I haven't heard from you for a while." It took three months for a relative to change the password and get the page locked.

Evan Carroll, co-author of "Your Digital Afterlife," says most younger people haven't bothered to make plans for their death because they don't feel they have many tangible assets.

"But they do have digital assets that are important to family," Carroll says, "such as photos and videos and email messages. Their families will have trouble accessing these things if there is no preparation in advance."

Finding passwords and discovering what accounts exist can be difficult, Carroll says.

Gathering the passwords

To prepare ahead of time, Jones just got her 90-year-old mother an iPhone so she can text her grandkids.

"Her (various email and digital account) passwords were everywhere," Jones says. "They were on little pieces of paper. They were in the underwear drawer."

Jones gathered her mother's different passwords and account information into a small notebook. She says they keep it near her mother's computer. Other people may prefer keeping such a list in a safe deposit box or in a digital file, she said.

Jeremy Toeman, the founder of LegacyLocker.com, created an online repository for information like this that can be accessed by designated people after a person dies. The death is verified through a series of pre-decided actions and notifications.

Toeman came up with the idea after two things happened. His grandmother died in her 90s in 2007 and nobody could access her email account with which she had corresponded with many friends around the world.