En español | Michael Dubruiel, 50, was running on the treadmill at the YMCA in Birmingham, Ala., in February 2009 when he collapsed and died of sudden cardiac arrest. Grief-stricken and shocked, his wife, Amy Welborn, then 48, not only had to plan a funeral; she also faced the daunting task of decoding the couple's online financial life, much of which was locked up behind a nearly impenetrable electronic wall.
"I knew only half the passwords for our accounts, and I had to do a lot of excavation and make a bunch of phone calls to figure out the others," Welborn said. It was a hassle the bereaved mother of five didn't need.
From banking and social media to email, iTunes and beyond, our lives are increasingly being lived and stored online. We upload family pictures to photo-sharing sites, download our favorite books into e-readers and share many of our stories on Facebook and Twitter. But what happens when we die? While probate courts have established procedures to distribute physical items, only a handful of states have laws governing the management — and inheritance — of online property. Unless you make specific plans for your digital afterlife, experts say, your "digital assets" stand a good chance of being mismanaged — or of disappearing entirely.
"People often don't think about this," says Naomi Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "People don't plan for how to handle these assets."
The good news is that there's plenty you can do now, before the unexpected happens, to ensure you get to determine the fate of your online life and additionally make things easier for the loved ones you leave behind.
Before you can decide how you want your digital assets managed after your death, you first need to take an inventory of your accounts, says Evan Carroll, coauthor of Your Digital Afterlife. The simplest way to do this? Write down all the websites you use in a week or month that require log-in information, and then, either in a secure document on your computer or in a notepad, write down the website, your log-in name and your password.
"You don't want to include these user names and passwords in the will itself, because it is a public document," Carroll says. Instead, specify in the will the location of the list.
Once you've accounted for all your digital assets, make sure you take the following steps to protect them.
This is perhaps the information most crucial to your heirs and, as Welborn found out, some of the hardest to access. The types of accounts include the obvious bank and investment accounts but also services you use to check on those investments, such as Yahoo! or MSN.com. If you can, specify your beneficiaries directly on the websites of the financial institutions.
Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a trade organization representing e-commerce and Internet companies, recommends downloading and/or printing out your account statements monthly or quarterly. This creates a hard copy of the information either on paper or on your personal computer, eliminating the problem of accessing your accounts. "Anything on your personal computer will become part of the estate, and the estate will access the information, and they will distribute the information that is on it," he says. "What they can't do is jump through the computer and to your online accounts."