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Online Legacies Prompt Growing Legal Challenges


When we die, hopefully we leave the people who knew us with memories. For the closest friends and family, we might even leave some material possessions. But what about our digital possession: our emails, computerized documents and Facebook accounts?

Stan Alcorn reports on how businesses are helping people handle their online remains.

STAN ALCORN, BYLINE: Dr. Stephen Kelly has only 28 Facebook friends. But when he logs into his son John's account, he has more than a thousand. He only does that once or twice a year, like the day before I spoke with him, which was the second anniversary of John's suicide.

DR. STEPHEN KELLY: It's a little bit unusual. I do leave a message. I post a message from us. Just thanking people for remembering him.

ALCORN: The message appears to come from John but Dr. Kelly signs it himself.

KELLY: Let me just get it exactly. I'll have to get online for a second.

ALCORN: He also reads messages that others leave for his son. Like this one from an organization that John volunteered with to try to stop war crimes in Africa.

KELLY: (Reading) John, we miss you so much. We are deeply thankful that we got to know you and seek justice alongside of you.


KELLY: So things like that come up.

ALCORN: Dr. Kelly is only able to stay in touch like this because he could log in using John's password. That's not recommended by Jim Lamm, an estate planning lawyer and digital property expert.

JIM LAMM: Do people do this? Yes, because it's easy and people think they're not going to get caught. And they may be right. I can't advise people to potentially break the law.

ALCORN: There are two kinds of law that Lamm says make digital property different. One kind is about data privacy. For example, after the death of a British model, Facebook successfully fought turning over her account to her mother, by saying these privacy laws made that, quote, "unauthorized access."

But the second kind of law goes even further.

LAMM: Even if I leave my password to my spouse or my personal representative of my estate, I may be violating my contract with Facebook.

ALCORN: If you violate your contract with Facebook, or Google or Yahoo!, you could be breaking the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It's kind of a mess, but a mess that a number of businesses are taking advantage of.

At Internet Media Labs in the Flatiron district of New York City, 17 companies share a big open office. One of them is AfterSteps. It's kind of like TurboTax but for death.

JESSICA BLOOMGARDEN: So I'll take you through?



ALCORN: Jessica Bloomgarden, the company's founder, leads me through the process - uploading my will, choosing a healthcare proxy, and then there's the section for digital accounts.

BLOOMGARDEN: Add your digital account usernames and passwords below so that your family can cancel, delete or update them as you instruct.

ALCORN: She knows that's against a lot of online companies' policies.

BLOOMGARDEN: So it's really more about giving that person options as opposed to adhering to whatever policies, you know, these organizations or companies are setting.

ALCORN: Those policies are starting to change. Last month, Google announced a kind of digital estate planner that you can set to delete or share data from your Google account, if you haven't logged on in a while. And legislators are looking to modernize those out-of-date computer laws, too. If that happens, your email and social media accounts could become more like boxes of letters under the bed, that you may not want your relatives to read after you're gone.

BLOOMGARDEN: I don't think my parents are going to spend a lot of time going through my email.


ALCORN: But if there are messages you want to take to your grave, you might be better off keeping them offline.

For NPR News, I'm Stan Alcorn in New York.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stan Alcorn