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Digital estate planning will give loved ones access to your digital content

8:09 PM, Nov 26, 2012   |    comments
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ROSEVILLE, Calif. - It's something morbid and a topic most find quite off-putting. But what many are calling "Digital Afterlife" is becoming just as important as your will.

When you die, the digital content you leave behind - email accounts, songs, books, etc. - could be lost forever.

RELATED STORY: Google offers insight into leaving a digital legacy

Something similar happened to Debby Rosenberg, but in the worst imaginable way.

"On the night of Sept. 16, 2011, I received a phone call about 9:20 in the evening," Rosenberg said. "It was my son-in-law, telling me, 'Lewis just shot himself, you need to get over here.'"

Rosenberg 's 26-year-old son Lewis committed suicide that night. But her pain of not knowing why he did it still bothers her every day.

"He just walked up, went across the hall, picked up my son-in-law's loaded gun and shot himself in the head."

What led up to his suicide remains a mystery, however the answer could be locked away in his iPhone.

"I can't get into his phone," Rosenberg said. "We do know that he had some activity that night on the phone. I want to know if there were text messages or anything; to give me some clue of what happened."

What's happening to Rosenberg and her family is a very tragic example of what many are realizing is an up and coming problem: our digital lives. All our pictures, songs, books and emails die with us, unless we do something about it.

"In the old days, if I had a rare book collection or a rare CD collection, I could hand that on and nobody would care," Nerds on Call Owner Ryan Elridge said. "But now with everything being in the cloud and everything being digital, it makes it more difficult to pass that stuff on."

Elridge added not only difficult, sometimes illegal.

INFOGRAPHIC: Step-by-step guide to protecting yourself online before you die

When you purchase something through iTunes, Amazon or the like, you're only purchasing a license to use it; you don't own it. That license is only good for that user and you're not supposed to be able to pass it on.

This also applies to things we haven't paid for, things that are password protected like email accounts,  bank accounts, or pictures on Facebook you'd want your kids and grandkids to have. No password means no access. 

MORE: What happens to your Facebook account when you die?

The solution is digital estate planning, according to Evan Carroll, author of "Your Digital Afterlife".

RAW VIDEO: Interview with digital inheritance author Evan Carroll

"One of the easiest ways to ignore digital estate planning is to say, 'I'll get around to it sometime,'" Carroll said. "Unfortunately, in this situation you only have one chance."

Carroll recommends leaving behind a list of your passwords or you can will your items, but that gets tricky. He said states like Idaho, Nebraska and Oklahoma have laws assisting a digital estate. Connecticut and Rhode Island too, but those only apply to email accounts.

Oregon, Michigan, New York and North Carolina have proposals for similar laws, but none of them could matter because the licenses users agree to are held in other states. For instance Apple is in California and ot can ignore other state laws.

"Until there's enough consumer pressure for Apple or Amazon to make it so you can transition your licensed items at death, there's no incentive for them to do so," Carroll said. "It's a lot of work without a lot of payoff for them."

RELATED STORY: Digital inheritance laws remain murky

So for now, until the companies and laws catch up, document your passwords; however, do not put those passwords in a will, which is a public document.

MORE: Startup offers individuals way to archive online life

Rosenberg has already made her list, but it doesn't help her get into Lewis' phone.

"There might not be answers on that phone, but that answer might be there," she said. "And as hard as it might be to deal with, it's not any harder than losing your child to suicide."

Rosenberg 's cell phone provider told her they can retrieve the password, but doing that will re-format the phone. Her next step is asking Apple for help.

By Nick Monacelli,


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