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Your Digital Estate: What Happens When You Die?

Follow these 6 steps to protect your online data

En Español | When you die, your physical estate — your home, stocks, bonds and money — go to the heirs you named in your will. If you don't have a will, state laws will govern what happens to your assets. But what about your digital estate, such as pictures, Facebook status updates, tweets, emails and documents stored in the cloud or on social media sites?

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How to pass your digital information- photos, text messages, and e-mails- down to your heirs- a senior woman uses her iPad

Leave a list of usernames and passwords for your estate executor. — Photo by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty Images

You can make those data, and the memories that come with them, available to your heirs with a little preparation.

Your online activity: Memorialize or delete?

If you die without leaving specific instructions, the online service where the data is stored determines what to do with your information and content. That means sites like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo! and others could have control of much of your digital estate by default.

Each site has its own rules regarding what happens to a deceased person's account. Take Facebook: Once the social media giant becomes aware of the death of a user, it gives the family two options. They can deactivate the user's profile or "memorialize" it. A memorialized page will allow friends and family to continue to see the profile and post messages on the wall, but no one can log into the account, and the deceased's page will not show up in a search. Unless Facebook gets instructions to deactivate the profile, it will memorialize it. Once a Facebook account has been memorialized, no one can log into it or change it.

The rules are different for other online platforms. Twitter provides the option of deactivating the deceased person's account or archiving their public tweets.

A complex process

Handling these archivings, memorializations or deactivations can be tedious. Facebook requires family members to produce the deceased's death certificate and proof that the person requesting the action is the lawful representative of the deceased. Twitter requires a death certificate; a government-issued ID; a signed, notarized statement; and a copy of a published obituary.

Accessing online email accounts of a deceased person can be even more problematic. Because there is acknowledgement that email can contain very private personal information, most companies like Microsoft (Hotmail) and Google (Gmail) pursue requests from family members or executors on an individual basis and will only rarely provide access to a deceased person's email. Yahoo! (Yahoo mail) explicitly states in its Terms of Service that it will not grant next of kin access to deceased users' accounts unless there is a court order from a judge.

Some email companies, like Yahoo! and Microsoft, will cancel your account after 270 days of inactivity, but in many cases, if no one reports your death your account will simply stay in place.

Prep your digital estate in six steps

So what is the best way to prepare your digital assets?

1. Take inventory of how much information you have on your computer and online. Write down a list of sites on which you have an account.

2. Make a list of user names and passwords for your computer as well as for any websites or Web services where you store information or files.

3. Store these lists in a safe off-site place — don't keep them near your computer. Make sure they are stored someplace that your lawyer and heirs will be able to access. Remember to update this list when you change your passwords or add new websites.

4. Be sure to keep a local copy of any important documents or pictures that you keep in online storage places like iCloud, Flickr, Shutterfly, Dropbox or Google Drive.

5. Think about how you want your heirs to handle your digital estate. Would you like your Facebook friends to be able to see and post on your page after your death, or would you feel more comfortable if your profile is removed?

6. Once you have reviewed your digital information and made decisions on what you would like to do, write out a list of instructions. Talk to your lawyer about including these instructions with your will and other estate documents.

By following these simple steps, you can ensure that your loved ones have access to the photos and other valuable assets that are part of your legacy.

Published: July 2012

You may also like: Your life in pixels.

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