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The Digital Dilemma

What happens to your family pictures and all of your other digital assets after you die?

This past week, millions of people got together with their loved ones to celebrate Thanksgiving. The food was good and the conversation interesting. In many cases, the events were memorialized in picture and video…much of it immediately uploaded to the web so that family and friends could enjoy and share the occasion.

Of course, Thanksgiving isn’t the only time that precious pictures are taken and uploaded. Weddings, births, favorite trips and many other momentous events are memorialized in photos and uploaded to the web. Many people don’t bother to print out photos on paper. Only the digital images survive.

So what happens to this family history after you die? And while we are on the subject, who controls your GMAIL/Facebook/Yahoo accounts when you are gone?

One group, Digital Death Day, holds an annual conference to talk about these issues.

The questions are new and the law is developing, but here are few things to keep in mind.

Social Sites

First, most social web sites are controlled by agreements that you accept into when you create your account. Some of the agreements dictate what happens to your account after you die.

For example, Yahoo’s agreement provides that accounts are not transferable. Facebook’s policy is different. Facebook has a form that can be filled out that will cause a Facebook profile to go into a Memorial State. Certain profile sections and features are hidden from view to protect privacy. Logging in to the account is prohibited, but confirmed friends are able to see the profile or find it via a search, and are able to leave messages on their wall.

Photo Sharing Sites

Lots of people use photo sharing sites to store and share photos online with family and friends. Two of them, Picasa (hosted by Google) and Flickr (hosted by Yahoo) each provide that your account terminates when you die. In both cases, presenting a death certificate means no more access to photos.

Yahoo’s terms of use for Flickr specifically states that the account will be closed and account contents will be deleted.

Email Accounts

Some may be already familiar with the story of Justin Ellsworth, a 20 year old US Marine, who died in Iraq. His family spent many months battling Yahoo over their right to receive copies of Justin’s email correspondence.

Although Yahoo was sympathetic with the family’s request, they denied access to the emails citing the terms of use agreement. Justin’s father went to court and finally won an order compelling Yahoo to deliver the email history.

Of course, some of this confusion could be eased if loved ones had a record of usernames and passwords. Then accounts could be opened and emails could be read, photo’s downloaded and saved elsewhere. Once all was in order, the services could then be notified of the death and the accounts cancelled.

In fact, the idea of safeguarding usernames and passwords while making them available to loved ones in the future has created a whole new line of business. Several articles have been written about companies such as Legacy Locker, Entrustet, and myestatemanager, which have been formed to help people manage their digital assets after death, allowing specific usernames and passwords to be sent to different people depending on your wishes.

As always, the best way to succeed is to have a plan.

For those precious Thanksgiving Day photos, be sure that someone you trust has access to the account after you’re gone so that an important piece of family history is not simply lost with the click of the delete button.

To talk more about how this issue, click here to have our office call to set up a time to discuss this with you.

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