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September 17, 2013

Your Facebook password belongs in your will

Your mother has just entered hospice care, and she is declining quickly. Suddenly there are a million questions you are supposed to have answered in advance: Is there a will? What should we do with the house, the old china, the dog? Most of them involve money, beloved objects, or family history, but in the digital age, there are less tangible assets we almost never stop to think about.

Once we might have treasured a loved one's voice on a recording, or their image on an old video, but now their digital footprint is scattered. Like most Americans, our loved ones will most likely access more than two dozen password-protected sites on different computers and a smartphones, storing and sharing the vulnerable, mundane and whimsical details of life while connecting with family and friends. The average American values his or her digital assets, such as photo libraries, personal communication, and entertainment files, at about $55,000, a value based on sentimental attachments as well as financial investments in music, application and software purchases. As we plan for inheriting the house and family keepsakes, we must include our digital lives as well. And, as we help our parents plan, we need to remember to take care of our own digital presence.

Risk No. 1: Online Bills

When Cara, 22, graduated from college, she returned home to spend the summer with her mother. After her mother was hospitalized for a heart attack, Cara spent every moment she could at her mother's bedside. When Cara returned home the night that her mother died, she found that the electricity was shut off. Apparently, she had been defaulting on online bills without realizing that there was no automatic payment system set up — or hard copies that would arrive each month as a reminder that payment was due. Although Cara was able to find all of her mother's log-ins for bill payment on her computer, she didn't have all of the passwords to access the accounts. She tried to convert the online bills back to paper statements, a process that wasn't easy or quick.

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