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What to Do Online ... When You're Dead

By Russell Francis

NEW YORK ( AdviceIQ) -- Your will ensures that your physical assets make their way to your loved ones. It is just as crucial to make sure your virtual assets are protected after death. Plan ahead now so your survivors can easily close your online life according to your wishes.

After you die, someone should delete your credit card information and email accounts and notify your friends and contacts. You may want your online photo albums or online genealogy preserved for family members. What happens to electronic assets that have a real financial value, such as accounts with PayPal, email, eBay (EBAY) and iTunes?

After death, paperless bills and automatic payments from your bank account need to be stopped. It's fairly easy to get a bank to close an online account, but with no account to draw from, unpaid bills could pile up if the family doesn't have access to the deceased's email account to cancel the payments.

Unfortunately, the law isn't up to speed with technological advances. For instance, you can generally get access to a deceased family member's online bank and brokerage accounts if you have the proper documentation, but many online service providers make it difficult or impossible to access other accounts.

Email messages, instant messages and personal files you upload from your computer and store online are all considered private unless you put them in the public domain. The Stored Communications Act protects your stored electronic communications from access by third parties. Courts interpret this to include emails and attachments, photos and videos. Most service providers keep communications and stored data private unless the user chooses to share them.

Different companies, different rules

Some services have guidelines to help family members unravel the electronic accounts in the absence of a password. AOL (AOL) , Twitter and LinkedIn (LNKD) require a copy of an individual's death certificate and proof of authorization to administer the estate before deleting or turning over an account to a survivor.

Google (GOOG) requires a death certificate for access to a Gmail account, but it also requires a copy of an email from the Gmail account in question to the survivor on any topic during the decedent's lifetime.

Your Yahoo (YHOO) account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo ID or contents within your account terminate when you die. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, the account and its contents may be permanently deleted. In a 2005 court case , Yahoo was ordered to turn over a deceased U.S. Marine's email messages to his family.

eBay requires similar documentation for a survivor to access a decedent's eBay seller's account. eBay does not grant access to a buyer's account, however.