Accessing Misplaced Digital Assets After a Death

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Senior using Internet via Shutterstock Senior using Internet via Shutterstock

Email accounts, iTunes libraries, Facebook photos, iCloud storage. The list goes on and on in today's web-wired world.

The average 30-year old has trouble keeping this all straight, while maintaining access to all these accounts. So imagine the challenges facing the average web-using senior citizen. And what happens if an elderly person with compromised memory forgets how to access important assets like bank accounts and stock portfolios -- as well as those other digital collections -- when they write out their will?

Today, nearly six in 10 Americans aged 65 and older use the Internet. And the majority of these seniors use it on a regular basis. By contrast, only three in 10 web-engaged seniors existed in 2007. So with elderly Internet use doubling, it's becoming more and more essential for individual states to have digital estate planning laws on the books.

The fact is that only 19 states have made such digital estate planning proposals. And only nine of them have signed proposals into law. So where does the rest of the country stand on this issue?

The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) directs the ways that online service providers, such as Google, may allow third-party access to their users information. Yet nowhere does the ECPA provide such directions for after-death access. Without a will, loved ones can only hope that companies terms of service allow account access. The thing is, many simply don't.

Real problems develop when people take their personal digital info to the great beyond. Recently, the late husband of Peggy Bush failed to include his iPad password in his will. The widowed Canadian asked Apple to allow her access to his account, but the company refused, setting the stage for an elaborate legal tussle to ensue.

Almost half of seniors use smartphones, tablets or e-readers. Yet while seven in 10 senior couples share their passwords for these devices, the other 30 percent can potentially face problems like Ms. Bush.

Also, senior-specific problems such as Alzheimer s disease may haunt the naturally-forgetful aging brain. The Alzheimer's Association projects that by 2050 half of all Americans aged 65 and older, in part due to the continuous rise in life expectancy, will be afflicted by Alzheimer's. This means that if current trends hold, 30 percent of this much larger future demographic will face these web-wired issues. A greater percent of those seniors will develop this crippling mental disorder, which in turn will lead to an ever-increasing rise in digital estate planning issues.

Given these trends, it seems clear that the remaining 41 states must start passing laws -- and updating them periodically, along with the other nine states that already have legislation -- to make digital estate access easier for loved ones. Until then, families and spouses should look for other ways to share and access each other's personal online information.