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How to Handle Your Online Life when Planning Your Estate

Traditional estate planning focuses on assets you can see, touch, or if needed, quickly turn into cash. But increasingly important parts of our lives exist in a cloud or at least on a computer. How can you control what happens to your e-mail, social media accounts, photos stored on a cloud, and other virtual data after you die or become incapacitated?

Think of all the information about you that has accumulated in various parts of the digital domain. Some of these may have monetary value, some could be used by identify thieves, others are of interest only to your family, and still other things you might prefer no one saw. A traditional will, often written in archaic legalese, seems a poor fit for this new world.

Online options for logging out permanently

Predictably the solution for this online problem may start online. Google has a program called Inactive Manager that lets its users decide how they want to deal with stored data — Picasa pictures, YouTube videos, Gmail, blogs — once they are no longer going to be accessing this information. Information on how to do this is available at the “Settings/Account” tab. You will be prompted to let up to ten people know you are deactivating the account, and when you want this to happen — perhaps three to six months after there has been no activity.

After checking to make sure you are not lurking somewhere on the site, Google will notify your beneficiaries and give them links to download the photographs or data you have bequeathed them. If you want to remove any traces of your online life, you can instruct Google to delete everything in your account. Be really, really sure that you want Google to take these steps. Imagine coming back from a long trip or extended stay in a hospital and finding that you no longer exist virtually or that your passwords have been shared.

Online safe deposit boxes for storing passwords and other data are another option. SecureSafe offers a free service for up to 50 passwords, with more space available for a fee. Other programs (Roboform, KeyPass, LastPass, iPassword, and Dashline) can store passwords so that they become immediately available. If you use one of these services, check to see what they offer for deleting data after a specified period or sending links to a person you identify.

Choosing a digital executor

The person you select as the executor of your regular estate may not be the right person to manage the final accounting of your digital assets. Certainly it should be someone you trust but this person should have technical skill as well as good character. You may have dozens of accounts with passwords and credit card information that have to be closed. Some online bills may have to be negotiated. Your digital executor should know what assets you want to preserve — photographs, for example — and who should get them. She should also know what accounts you do not want to share.

Be sure to name this person in your regular will with a description of the authority you are assigning her. Just like a regular will, someone may contest the digital provisions, seeking access to personal information. Don’t put any passwords or User IDs in the regular will, which becomes a public document.

After death, the digital executor can contact Facebook and other social media sites to request transfer of the contents. Each site will want proof that the executor is authorized to receive the data, and there may be limitations. Even with proper authorization, the site’s fine print may limit what your digital executor can do. Before this becomes necessary, you can back up music on your computer and give family members user ID information for an e-book account so that they can access the content.

This area of the law and practice is still evolving. In thinking about your digital legacy, consider what you want people to know about you and what you would prefer to keep private. If something is so private or damaging to others that you would not want it to survive you, then you may want to remove it now.

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