National Edition

Digital death: Preparing for your afterlife on the cloud

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

The other impetus was a particularly bumpy airline flight in 2008 that made him think he might die. He mentally checked off that all his affairs were in order — life insurance, car, house. But then he thought about all his digital stuff such as his email accounts. That thought led to his creating his website.

Digital diversity

Digital assets go beyond just Facebook and email accounts. There are automatic billings to digital accounts — such as phone bills, Netflix, subscriptions, software services and digital storage on the cloud.

There are shopping accounts such as eBay and Amazon.com. There are other social media sites from LinkedIn to Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

There are digital photographs and videos stored on online services.

There are even, as Toeman points out, gaming websites where a person may have spent years creating a character and accumulating in-game virtual property that might have real value in the real world.

There are e-books. There are frequent flyer miles. There are blogs and personal stores like CafePress.com.

Shadow lives

Some people might be like the late Roger Ebert, who arranged to continue his active Twitter account and blog.

Other people might not like the idea of a permanent record that their family can access.

William B. Bissett, a certified financial planner at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Charlotte, N.C., says there are privacy concerns with people accessing somebody's digital assets after death.

"There are people who have shadow lives online," he says. "There is no worse time to find out some great horrible secret than right after someone dies."

Jones, who wrote "Death for Beginners," says people may not want digital things to survive them for other reasons as well. Emails between family members discussing a sibling or parent may not be the best thing for people to have access to, for example.

Jones left instructions with her husband to delete certain emails and computer folders that have personal items such as stories she is working on.

"But you have to have somebody you can trust," she says.

Either way, she said, instructions need to be left.

Digital instructions

Bissett says people need to make an inventory of their digital assets. He recommends designating someone as a "digital executor" in a will — somebody who is tech savvy and can be trusted to carry out your wishes. Do not, however, put passwords in a will since it is a public document.

Carroll says the main problem is that email is the main access to most accounts online — and email accounts can be an uncomfortable mix of both access and personal information. Sometimes people have business emails for their accounts that other family members are unaware of.

Even with designated digital executors or entrusting people with passwords and instructions, there are still murky areas. Bissett says that laws haven't kept up with the advance of digital technology and the way people are living their lives. The Stored Communications Act of 1986 may make it against the law for people besides the user of an account to access it, even if the user leaves passwords and wants them to do it. Estate laws are also different from state to state. On top of this, every website and service has its own Terms of Service and contracts covering who can access what and where.

"Google has gone above and beyond," Bissett says, however. Google has a feature called the "Inactive Account Manager," which allows users to designate what to do when an account is inactive for a predetermined time. For example, Google could delete all accounts if the account in inactive after say 90 days — if that is what the user wants.

But still, as Carroll points out, "It is a mess."

Carroll and Bissett agree, however, that the good news is that eventually things may improve as more people demand changes in the law and website contracts to match how people live — and die — in a digital world.

And in a digital world, websites can become conduits to a spiritual world.

Sometimes, Pamela Sailor uses Facebook to send private messages to her deceased brother's account. "It has become a place of grieving for me," she says.

EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com, Twitter:@degroote, Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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