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The digital afterlife

Keep password list, pick Web executor, local experts advise


John Kaufeld recalls checking Facebook one day and seeing a suggestion that he “poke” – electronically nudge – a friend with whom he hadn’t chatted in a while.

“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to poke her. Why would I want to poke her? She’s dead,’ ” he says.

For the IPFW online marketing specialist, the auto-generated message was just a somewhat disconcerting ripple in his day.

But the experience also represents a newfangled problem of our digital age.

In the old days, the question of what happens to us after we die might have been pondered by theologians and philosophers.

Now that our virtual selves can live on long after our physical presence, it’s lawyers and next-of-kin who struggle with it as they endeavor to settle the affairs of the newly departed, says Keith Huffman, an attorney with Dale, Huffman & Babcock in Bluffton.

A specialist in elder law, Huffman lately has found himself in demand for talks like this one that he gave this year to members of a high-powered bankers’ association: “What Happens to Your Digital Assets When You Go Off-line: Estate Planning for the Digital After-Life.”

He says he got a first-hand education when he had to settle the financial affairs of a 75-year-old man who was single and had all his investment accounts online.

He left no instructions how to get to them.

“It took literally a month to find all the accounts the person owned. We actually had to go back to his tax preparer to trace all this,” Huffman says.

Huffman, who heads the elder law section of the Indiana Bar Association, says the issue of individuals’ digital legacy is just starting to come to the surface. Most people dying today aren’t completely online-dependent, he says.

“But as we see the baby boomers age, that’s when it’s going to hit,” he notes.

So, some estate-planning attorneys now urge the living to make provisions for their digital assets – things of value stored in electronic devices, including desktop and laptop computers, tablets and smartphones.

Many encourage the naming of a digital executor – someone who knows his or her way around the online environment whose job it will be to shut down things that might ought to disappear – Farmville accounts, an automatic-pay car loan or a LinkedIn profile – and rescue things that need saving – family photos in a Flickr account, the editions of an online blog or the only copy of an extensive family genealogy project.

“What we want to do is have somebody plan for some way of letting a trusted personal representative have all their passwords and security questions so that different accounts can be accessed,” says Robert Rhee, an attorney with Beers, Maller, Backs & Salin in Fort Wayne. “If they don’t have someone with the proper authority, it just adds more roadblocks.”

He recommends people set up – and regularly update – such a list long before they might pass away.

Many times, the need to access another’s online world comes up when a person becomes incapacitated through an accident or diseases such as dementia or stroke, he says, and the information also can come in handy after a fire or natural disaster.

The list, and at least one backup copy, should be kept securely offline, he says, perhaps with a person’s will and other important documents.

Other experts say a flash drive can be the repository as well and recommend that the information not be written into the will itself because it becomes a public document.

Kevin Mullett, director of product development and social media for Cirrus ABS in Fort Wayne, says that until recently, online services – designed mostly by young people – hadn’t really considered what to do with their content in the case of a death of a user.

But now many do – although the procedures are usually buried “in the fine print that nobody reads,” he says.

And, he adds, there are often unseen incentives for services to maintain their user numbers and not deactivate accounts.

“The systems are designed to continue engagement with individuals,” he explains. “They’re unlikely to remove users because with advertising rates based on it, they want to show volume.”

On Facebook alone, it’s estimated that there are probably 30 million accounts for deceased members, Huffman says. With proof of death and a person authorized to act on the deceased’s behalf, a Facebook account can be shut down, he says, and the service also now has a way to memorialize a page.

That means that no one can log into it, but confirmed friends at the time of a person’s death can still visit and post to it – sort of like a virtual gravesite bulletin board. Memorialization freezes content, removes some information and blocks the person from showing up in friend suggestions.

“I think the kind thing to do might be reach out to the (dead) person’s family and say, ‘Hey, just wanted you to know this person’s profile is still active.’ … And here’s some information on what to do about it,” says Kaufeld, who occasionally has been called on to deactivate the online presence of a deceased co-worker as part of his job.

In May, Google became the first service to give users a choice for what happens to their content – email, stored videos, online calendars and so forth – if they become incapacitated or die.

The service is called “Your Account Inactivity Manager” – a name that causes even Huffman to break into laughter.

“If you haven’t been on (Google) for three, six or 12 months, you choose, then it sends an email to your account,” he says. “And if you don’t respond, it will notify the person you identify as authorized” to decide what to save and what should be deleted.

But each service a person might have used has its own policies, Huffman points out, so it can be difficult to deal with them. He says an entire online industry has sprung up around promises to help the dead – but he doesn’t recommend any of the companies.

“These companies change quite a bit over time – they’re constantly buying and selling each other and going in and out of business,” he says.

In other words, there’s no way to know whether a company will still be around when you aren’t.

Huffman adds there’s still another reason to plan ahead – what a person has online can be worth money to his or her heirs.

He points to a recent survey by the McAfee electronic security company that found the average American had more than $54,000 wrapped up in digital assets – entertainment files such as music, electronic books or other media downloads; personal memories and communications such as photos, videos and emails; rebates and reward points; a blog that makes money; a portfolio of written or artistic work; or even the value of a domain name in the case of an online business.

But people are still just as reluctant to think about their online death as they are their real one.

So now, Huffman says, when people come in to plan their wills, he doesn’t hesitate to ask about online assets.

“I mean, the average person has more than 20 passwords,” he says. “But nobody brings it up – you always have to bring it up. But when you do bring it up, they’ll always say, ‘Gosh, that’s a good idea.’ ”