Your Digital Afterlife: What Happens to Your Online Accounts?

Updated: 09/18/2013 3:29 PM By: Tom Hauser

Have you ever given much thought to what happens to your digital life after you die? Whether you know it or not, you likely have a digital life. It's made up of your Facebook page, Twitter account, pictures stored on Flickr, books you've bought on Amazon Kindle, movies you've downloaded on Vudu, and music bought on iTunes. 

Many of us have wills that designate who gets our cars, houses, jewelry, baseball card collections, but not many of those wills account for your "digital assets."

In 1986 a federal law was passed restricting what can be disclosed by electronic communications companies without the permission of account holders, unless there's a court order. That law was written before the Internet became what it is today and is in the process of being rewritten. In the meantime, it's unclear what rights you have to pass along your digital property after you die.

"It's very new," says Jim Lamm, an attorney at Gray, Plant, Mooty in Minneapolis and a leading authority on digital assets. "Most of us haven't experienced the pain of this. We haven't had to probate an estate of somebody with significant digital property."

Because the law is unclear, many digital companies adopt their own policies on what can be released to family members after an account holder dies.  Apple currently does not allow people to inherit an iTunes collection you might have spent thousands of dollars acquiring.  Amazon does allow Kindle books to be willed.  "All of these accounts are storing information somewhere," says Mark Lanterman, a computer forensics expert.  "The trick is knowing how to access it after a family member is no longer with us."

Just in case, Lanterman suggests backing up most of your digital data you want to preserve on external hard drives.  Lamm suggests writing down the user names and passwords of any accounts that contain data you want to pass along to you family.  Lamm says an inactive account can disappear.  "If you haven't logged into the account for a certain number of days they'll close the account," he says. That means family pictures, digital music and other data could disappear.

At least 18 states have considered legislation to provide account holders and family members more access after someone dies.  However, federal law restricts what can be done.  Until those privacy laws are rewritten, the "digital afterlife" could remain as mysterious as the "physical afterlife."

More Resources:

Attorney Jim Lamm's blog about what happens to your digital data after death.
Article about what happens to inactive Facebook accounts.
Google's new policy on managing email accounts after the account holder dies
Article on the issue of digital estate planning from the National Association of Legal Services