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Digital Afterlife: Who manages digital assets after you're gone?

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - So much of our lives are now online, from social media accounts to financial accounts to entertainment libraries.

But have you ever thought about what happens to all of that after you die? Your digital afterlife is becoming a bigger part of estate planning, for good reason.

Kenneth White may be the exception to the rule in an overactive Internet universe.

"I don't trust online, so I do very little online," White said. "Don't shop online, don't pay bills online."

According to the Pew Research Institute, 61 percent of Internet users in the U.S. bank online, 72 percent use social media, and 80 percent have shopped online.

Those accounts are now considered digital assets. Attorney Kindall James said digital assets include email accounts, social media and online banking accounts. Also, photo sharing accounts, entertainment accounts for music or movies - even e-books you've purchased.

All of it can leave your loved ones' heads spinning at the worst possible time. Estate planners say it's an issue they're faced with more and more.

For years, many people have drawn up a last will and testament to spell out who gets what when they die - tangible assets like the house, the cars, the jewelry.

But now, digital assets add another layer of complication.

James says don't assume you can just "hand down" what you consider to be yours online.

"A lot of them say your rights to the account cease upon death and the account's not transferrable," James said.

Bill Simpson is a licensed funeral director who has dealt with the confusion firsthand.

"A good friend of mine from high school passed away two years ago from an accident, and he still has an active Facebook account to this day because his family doesn't know his password and can't shut it off," said Simpson. "So people are still tagging him on posts, which is kind of awkward and weird."

Most people admit it's something they've never even thought about.

Turns out, user privacy rules, even in your digital afterlife.

"So, for example, Facebook says you and only you, not your successor, not your power of attorney, only you can access your Facebook account,"  said estate planning attorney Karin Prangley.

As is usually the case, technology has developed faster than the law. Right now, only a handful of states, not including Louisiana, have passed legislation addressing digital assets, which is why the uniform law commission is working on laws that every state could adopt.

In the meantime, what happens to your iTunes or Kindle account, no matter how big your database, is governed by the site's terms of use agreement, which basically says you don't own what's in your library, so it's not yours to pass down.

New Orleans estate planning attorney Peggy Adams says, "When you have Kindle e-books, you may only be leasing those books, your music, may only be leasing. So what you think of as your library may not be yours."

Adams has this advice: "It would be a really prudent thing to do to help your heirs if you make a list of your assets so they know what you have. and now that includes passwords, bank accounts that are mainly accessed online."

There are dozens of web-based services that can help you get your estate and digital asset plans in order: Keeper, Legacy Locker and Life Document Storage, which was founded by Bill Simpson.

"It allows a person to take all their information or documents they've gathered in a lifetime and put it online in a safe and secure environment," said Simpson. "We use the same encryption technology as banks and government agencies."

Web giant Google has taken note of all the attention digital assets are getting. A new feature, the inactive account manager, makes it easy for users to inform the company what they want done when they can no longer use their account.

Twitter and LinkedIn also have pages where people can go to get their loved one's accounts shut down, as long as there's proof of the person's death.

Adams says it's becoming a bigger deal.

"I don't think we're really feeling the impact yet," she said. "Most people who die are older and may not have so much of a digital life, but I can see where it's going to become exponentially more of a problem."

Estate planners say the worst thing you can do is nothing. Getting your digital afterlife in order now will prevent it from haunting those you leave behind.

Right now, there are more than 30 million Facebook accounts that belong to dead people and it's estimated that by 2060, there could be more dead people on Facebook than live ones.




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