How to manage your digital afterlife

I manage most of my financial and business life online. A lot of my personal life is there, too – photographs, saved emails, Facebook, tweets. If I'm hit by a truck tomorrow, what happens to it?

I thought I was covered by giving my husband and digerati brother the passwords to my bank and mutual fund accounts. But I've just read "Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy? (Voices That Matter)," by Evan Carroll and John Romano, and come to realize that I've barely scratched the surface. I need to think about how much of my life online I'd like my heirs to see, who should manage it, and what, if anything, should be saved.

In the old days (say, 15 years ago), you shoved family photos into shoeboxes, owned music on CD (or vinyl) and kept important documents in safe deposit boxes. Lovers sent letters. Servicemen and women wrote home, and their families preserved the mail for their descendants.

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Today, your photos are on your hard drive or in the Cloud, you rent the music on your iPod, and your personal notes go by e-mail, text, Facebook or Twitter. Documents might be scanned. To save any of it for the next generation, you need to appoint a digital executor.

A digital executor follows your directions, regarding which accounts to save and which to close. Ideally, you'd name the same person who's the executor of your will. If that person isn't up to the technical side of the Internet, however, name a digerati you trust.

He or she has no legal authority, at present. The estate laws haven’t caught up with a world that’s living online. So tell your family what’s up, or leave your legal executive a letter.

Presumably, everyone will be okay with your decisions.

Your digital executor needs your user name, passwords, PINs, and the answers to any "security" questions connected with your account. He or she will be bound by the terms and conditions of each online service that you deal with, and not all of them are consumer friendly.

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For example, Yahoo and Flickr normally delete accounts, if they receive a death certificate, rather than let your executor freeze them in time. Go to Deceased Account for a helpful list of practices.

A template at YourDigitalAfterlife helps you organize your digital assets and think about what to do with each of them.

Here’s a general guide:

-- Your photographs and videos. These are perhaps your family's dearest future possessions. Your children, when grown, will have a record of what they looked like as babies and teenagers. Grandchildren will see their grandparents as young marrieds. Later generations will have a broad window on our lives and times, compared with the few surviving photos we have of our own ancestors. If you keep your photos in the cloud, your executor can distribute links but should also try to get them into another format. There's no guarantee that your cloud company will survive for years and years.

Which brings up an important point. Your digital executor has to keep up with changing technology. Photos on disks or hard drives might not be readable a few years from now. It will take real dedication to family heritage. Hint: There’s something called “paper” that can last for a couple hundred years, regardless of whether JPEG lives or dies. Think about printing the best photos in the collection.

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-- Your e-mail accounts. You want your spouse or a friend to respond to e-mails from people who don't know you're dead. Or put up an auto response — "Thanks for everything, goodbye" — then delete the account at a later date. If you have secrets to keep, put a password on your account and don't reveal it. A parent or executor might get a court order to see your e-mails, but that's difficult and expensive.

-- Your financial accounts. Your executor needs to reach them to pay final bills, stop any automatic deductions from your accounts, cancel online subscriptions, accumulate your financial assets and pass them to your heirs. That means leaving your passwords, user names, and security questions where the executor can find them. The simplest way is to write them down on a paper attached to your will ("paper" again).

-- Your scanned documents. They'll be lost, unless you leave your executor the key.

-- Facebook and other social media. Facebook will "memorialize" your account, if you want it left up. Friends can post final memories but no one can add messages in your name. If you have a popular blog, your digital executor should post an obit or goodbye note.

-- Personal life kept on your computer at work. Move it off. Your employer probably won't allow your heirs access, and will delete the files.

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-- Your music library. You can't leave it to anyone. You don't own downloaded music, you've bought only the right to listen to it. It can be heard, however, by someone who has access to your music player.

-- Your online business. Plan to pass it on as you would other type of business, seamlessly. That means finding out what it takes to transfer authority online (that might not even be possible). If no one wants the business, your executor will wrap it up, including settling any PayPal or eBay payments due.

Maybe you don’t care about your digital legacy. Once dead, you’d just as soon join the billions of unknown people who went before you. But your children and grandchildren will care, especially after years have passed and they start to wonder more about their heritage.

When my grandmother died, we sorted through her home and attic and distributed treasures. When our generation dies, our heirs will be sorting through the digital treasures we leave behind. That is, if they can find them. The Carroll and Romano book will tell you what to do.

Jane Bryant Quinn is a nationally known commentator on personal finance, with books and columns read and trusted by millions. In her long career, she has established herself as America’s most reliable voice for people trying to manage their money well. Read more of Jane's articles here