Your first step should be to read the account's terms of service (TOS). We know — no one really reads the fine print when signing up for an online service like email. Still, this document contains important information about what happens to your account when you die. Some email providers, like Yahoo!, consider your account terminated upon your death.
"Every online account is governed by a TOS agreement, and they're all different," says Alexandra Gerson, an estate attorney with Helsell Fetterman in Seattle. "In almost all cases, the TOS gives you a nontransferable license, which means that nobody else can access your account after your death."
It's important to remember that strict federal law governs the release of private messages like email, notes DelBianco. "Federal law doesn't allow these email services to divulge the contents of these communications without a court order or consent from the individual," he says. If you want your heirs to be able to access your email after you're gone, Cahn recommends that you draft a statement to that effect. "This document can help others carry out your wishes and can be added to your will," Cahn says, although she emphasizes that the law in this area is still in its infancy and much uncertainty remains.
Social media accounts
As with email, the rules regarding what happens to your Facebook or Twitter account upon your death are spelled out in the TOS agreement. But several social media sites have also begun offering additional services. In 2009, Facebook added a feature that allows friends and family members to share memories of a deceased loved one on his or her Timeline. The service can be activated once the site receives proof of that person's death, and deactivated at a family member's request. In April 2013, Google launched Inactive Account Manager, which allows individuals to designate up to 10 trusted friends or relatives as beneficiaries of their online accounts. "You can specify what you want to happen, service by service," says Google spokesperson Nadja Blagojevic.
Music, e-books and more
When you download a song from iTunes or a book to a Kindle or other e-reader, you don't actually own the item. Instead, you purchase a license to use the download during your lifetime. "In some cases what you think you own and what you actually have a legal right to pass on are very different. Some of these things just can't be transferred," explains Gerson. So don't promise someone your amazing iTunes collection before making sure that it's yours to pass on. (You can find out by reading the TOS agreement.)
Photo-sharing sites such as Shutterfly and Flickr are a great way to share memories of vacations and grandkids, but if you want your heirs to be able to access your digital photos after you're gone, Carroll recommends that you download your favorites and save a copy to your hard drive. This will make it easier for your most treasured images to stay in the family. Also, your loved ones won't have to sort through thousands of images after your death.
After her husband died, Amy Welborn did eventually recover all of the couple's financial data. She then made changes to her will, specifying exactly what should happen to her email accounts, her blog and her financial information upon her death. And she created a master password list and told a relative where she had hidden it. "It is an act of love to try and make life after you're gone as hassle-free as possible," she says.
Carrie Arnold is a freelance writer for AARP Media.
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