The Norman Transcript

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July 17, 2014

What happens to online accounts when you die?

WASHINGTON — You’ve probably decided who gets the house or that family heirloom up in the attic when you die. But what about your email account and all those photos stored online?

Grieving relatives might want access for sentimental reasons, or to settle financial issues. But do you want your mom reading your exchanges on an online dating profile or a spouse going through every email?

The Uniform Law Commission, whose members are appointed by state governments to help standardize state laws, on Wednesday endorsed a plan that would give loved ones access to — but not control of — the deceased’s digital accounts, unless specified otherwise in a will.

To become law in a state, the legislation would have to be adopted by the legislature. If it did, a person’s online life could become as much a part of estate planning as deciding what to do with physical possessions.

“This is something most people don’t think of until they are faced with it. They have no idea what is about to be lost,” said Karen Williams of Beaverton, Ore., who sued Facebook for access to her 22-year-old son Loren’s account after he died in a 2005 motorcycle wreck.

The question of what to do with one’s “digital assets” is as big as America’s electronic footprint. A person’s online musings, photos and videos — such as a popular blog or a gaming avatar that has acquired a certain status online — can be worth considerable value to an estate. Imagine the trove of digital files for someone of historical or popular note — say former President Bill Clinton or musician Bob Dylan — and what those files might fetch on an auction block.

“Our email accounts are our filing cabinets these days,” said Suzanne Brown Walsh, a Cummings & Lockwood attorney who chaired the drafting committee on the proposed legislation. But “if you need access to an email account, in most states you wouldn’t get it.”

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