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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.

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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