The Social Media Will: An Expert Guide to Your Digital Afterlife

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It's increasingly important to leave family with access to your online life, but organizing your virtual assets presents some hurdles.

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In the morning, many of us reach first for our screens. We check our phones before we get out of bed. We scroll through our inbox before we have a coffee. Our News Feed, our Twitter feed, it's all part of the standard morning routine.

In fact, it's pretty hard to picture a normal workweek, let alone a life, without emails, status updates, and Amazon purchases. But have you ever thought about what happens to all of your accounts when that inevitable day comes, and you can't log onto them yourself anymore?

Well, Washington thinks it's time to take the problem seriously. As Facebook rounds the billion-user mark, the Feds have stepped up to the plate with a formal policy about America's online profiles. On April 26th, the government added creating "a social media will" to their list of official personal finance recommendations. USA.gov advises folks to appoint someone they trust as an online executor, and to hand over all passwords and a clear statement about how you'd like each of your accounts handled after your death.

For instance: would you like your Timeline to end when you do (in which case, you better leave that online executor clear instructions to close the account)? Or, would you rather have your profile "memorialized" -- Facebook-speak for an account that lives on, so friends can periodically post messages about how much they miss you? (Twitter currently allows family members to remove a person's account with proper proof of their death, but declined to comment further on anything relating to social media wills or the death of Twitterers).

In fact, a handful of states have already beaten Uncle Sam to the punch. Rhode Island and Connecticut -- among the first to adopt Internet probate laws -- provide help for relatives who need access to a person's email account. Neither has amended its laws to reflect the social media explosion of the past five years. But a 2010 Oklahoma statute explicitly gives estate administrators the power to access "social networking," "microblogging," and email after someone has passed away.

Gerry Beyer, a national expert in estate and trust issues, believes that all adults should get their virtual assets in order, sooner rather than later. After all, think about out the mess we're all potentially leaving behind. From banking passwords to Ebay and LinkedIn log-in's, without some sort of long-range plan, our laptops are a jumble of personal and financial data our heirs can't possibly make heads or tails of.

"Sorting through a deceased's online life for the important things can be just as daunting as cleaning out the house of a hoarder," Beyer says. In the old days, you would never leave your kids without a safe-deposit key, so why lock them out of your online possessions?

But organizing your virtual assets can present some significant security hurdles. For starters, a savvy Internet user probably has numerous usernames and passwords for different accounts that probably change them with some regularity -- so keeping everything current can get mighty tricky. Also, by this point, most of us are pretty wary about writing all of this kind of stuff down in a single document, in case our private information falls into the wrong hands.

Beyer is concerned about people simply placing their digital information in a will, because once a will is admitted to probate, it's public information. He encourages people to reference a separate document that contains all of your account details, or to draft a trust with a digital asset plan so that none of your usernames or passwords could ever become part of the public record.

While a lot of us would rather not think about the world without us, other Internet users are going much further than just leaving their log-ins in a safe spot. They're making sure they can posthumously update their social media pages and extend their digital legacy.

At South By SouthWest's Start-up Village this past March, James Norris debuted a website called DeadSocial, a free service that allows users to post predesigned content (updates, pictures, comments) from their Twitter, Facebook and Google+ accounts at defined intervals or on certain important dates or anniversaries. You could wish your kid happy birthday for their rest of their lives (regardless of when yours ends).

"We spend so much time in life manipulating what people think of us," James explains. "The next logical step in communication is for us to extend our personality and voice through the social web."

As of now, a DeadSocial user has to give access to someone they trust to get the ball rolling once they've passed away. But the company is building a "Dead Man's Switch" so people can use the site without having to rely on a third-party human being. In only a few months, thousands of new members have signed up to try out the technology. The reason according to Norris? "DeadSocial not only allows you to virtually carry on relationships you already had, but might even allow you to create new ones with unborn family members."

Sure, websites like DeadSocial and If I Die (a Facebook app that lets you leave a letter or video behind), as well as the government's advice to draft a social media will, are all a testament to how much our online selves have permeated our "real life" experience. But maybe that's precisely not the point for some people.

Laura Portwood-Stacer, a professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University isn't so sure that everybody wants their loved ones to have access to their online information, and that executors should have every last Hotmail and Match.com password.

"Social networking sites often allow people to explore aspects of their identities that they feel they can't share with the people they are close to in the physical world, " she says. "There is a certain comfort in knowing that that information will be secure and not become part of their family's memory of them."

At the end of the day, everyone agrees the worst thing for users to do is nothing at all, leaving the fate of their online accounts up to the legislature or a frustrated family member. It might seem almost antisocial, but next time you log onto Pinterest or Instagram, take a moment and think about who you'd like to leave all those pictures to -- or if you'd rather take those accounts with you when you go.

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Jacoba Urist is a contributing journalist for NBC News, where she covers health and lifestyle issues. More

She received her JD and LL.M in taxation from New York University School of Law and a Masters in Public Policy from The Johns Hopkins Institute For Health and Social Policy. Her articles have also appeared on Newsweek/TheDailyBeast, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

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