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What happens to my online accounts when I die?

These days, using a personal computer is just a normal part of life. You may have e-mail or online accounts that require a password, or you may have pictures, videos, or documents stored online or on your hard drive. You may even maintain a blog or website. Like your physical assets, these "digital" or "cyber" assets can have both sentimental and economic value. Chances are, nobody else knows your cyber assets even exist, and if they do, they may not know where those assets are stored or how to access them. It's important that you make plans for the disposition of your cyber assets in the event of your incapacity or death. If you don't, your survivors may have to deal with time-consuming and costly searches, or worse, the assets may be overlooked and lost altogether.

What happens to your cyber assets at your death depends on what type of asset it is, and while the laws regarding cyber assets are not well settled, there are some broad guidelines. Domain names, once registered, become your personal property under property law, and your websites and blog content are yours under federal copyright law. These types of cyber assets are clearly defined by law and are transferable to your heirs (e.g., through your will). On the other hand, certain online accounts, such as e-mail accounts, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, or PayPal, may not be classified as property in the legal sense; you are merely given a license by the website when you agree to its terms of service. Under these terms of service, transferability of your accounts may be limited or even prohibited altogether. Terms of service vary widely from site to site. Some sites, such as YouTube, will allow persons with legal power of attorney to access your accounts, and they post instructions on how to do so. Other sites, such as Facebook, will put your accounts into a "memorial state." Many sites, however, will terminate and permanently delete your accounts upon notification of your death. You should read and understand all terms of service and make any necessary legal arrangements so your heirs will have access to your accounts.

Note: On the flip side, you may have certain private accounts to which you want to ensure that no one is given access and which will be terminated immediately upon your death.