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What happens to your emails when you die?

Heather Gehlert: If you don't decide who should gain access to your digital property, a court might for you.

According to articles in Forbes and Foreign Policy magazine, estate planners are advising their clients to include emails and online passwords in their wills. Without these provisions, online service providers will not grant family or friends access to digital property, some of which could be valuable.

The Foreign Policy article states that, more and more, these cases are landing in court:

In 2005, a Michigan judge ordered Yahoo! to release the emails of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq to his family after they filed suit. Chris Sprigman, a University of Virginia law professor, says that's just the beginning. "There will be a flood of these cases cropping up," he says.

These cases can be sticky because unlike traditional assets, digital property does not have laws to point to, only agreements.

Forbes lists these basic differences between traditional and digital assets:

  • Digital assets can be created and defined by contract.
  • Some digital assets are subject to intellectual property law.
  • Many digital assets can be endlessly duplicated.
  • Digital assets may be stored in a tangible asset such as a computer and therefore may affect the value of the machine.
  • In general, digital assets are licensed, not sold, and rights usually aren't transferable.
  • New laws are emerging to govern digital property, but they lag behind the breakneck speed of technology.

    In the meantime, here are some tips from Forbes to help you protect your digital assets:

    Separate personal and business e-mail accounts, even if this means opening up several Yahoo! Mail, Microsoft Hotmail or Google Gmail accounts. Make the addresses and passwords known to your executor or anyone who will need the information after your death. If a file contains sensitive information you wish to keep confidential, make arrangements to have your executor delete it after your death.

    Make plans in advance for joint access to vital e-mail accounts and information stored online or protected by a password in a computer. Leave a list of the locations of such information with your executor. This can be as simple as writing things down, sealing it in an envelope and marking it "To Be Opened Upon My Death."

    Save all contracts covering the handling of your digital assets. This will help your lawyer sort things out if things get sticky.

    In financial matters, balance personal security with the needs of your heirs. Protect your encrypted information, but make sure a trusted person can locate it and handle it as you wished after your death.

    Make provisions to renew key URLs after your death because you don't want to lose simply because a family member didn't know it was time to re-up. It's unclear that a URL is property that a secured creditor can seize, but in the meantime be sure all fees are paid after your death.

Heather Gehlert is a managing editor at AlterNet.

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