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Digital heirs: online accounts and estate planning decisions

Estate planning and administration are highly traditional areas of the law. This tradition reflects centuries of common law practice, along with modern statutes.

Increasingly, however, taking care of an estate after someone dies involves dealing with issues regarding the "digital afterlife." In Massachusetts and across the country, control of online data after death is growing in importance all the time.

Last week, Google announced the release of a dashboard to allow its users to enable people to make more proactive decisions about what they would like to happen to their data after death. The dashboard applies to several popular platforms, including Gmail and Google +.

The new service does not only apply to what happens to data after death. It also applies to data for users who become inactive for an extended amount of time.

One option allowed by the new service to have data deleted after a certain amount of time, such as six months or a year. Another option would be designate one or more people to receive the data.

In essence, people who are designated to serve in this capacity would be Google heirs. The company itself, rather euphemistically, is calling them "inactive account mangers."

Whatever they are called, it's potentially a very important role. After all, with so much human activity migrating to the Internet in recent years, more and more people who die or become inactive in using their online accounts have vast stores of information that has accumulated online.

Making intelligent decisions about what to do with all that data requires some thought. But as personal information online grows, managing it is clearly becoming a more important part of the estate planning process.

Source: "Google Lets Users Plan 'Digital Afterlife' By Naming Heirs," The Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey A. Fowler," 4-11-13

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