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Who will unlock your virtual assets when you die?

Legal and money experts talk about covering all the bases for financial consequences before and after death. Estate planning can involve a few or many methods to preserve assets and control things we choose to leave to heirs. What about virtual belongings? Who gets those when we die?

A thorough estate plan cannot be complete until a person is prepared to hand over everything he or she has, including digital assets. All the legal documents that allow an executor, a trustee, a beneficiary or an heir to possess belongings can be frustrated indefinitely if no virtual key unlocks account names and passwords on the deceased's various Internet accounts. Usernames and passwords are so numerous and commonplace, that individuals forget to share them with people who need them when they are no longer around to log in to a bank or retirement account, emails or even Facebook.

An individual who fails to leave behind the correct combinations of letters, numbers and symbols to access accounts places a heavy burden on estate managers and heirs. There may be no way to locate and identify a person's total liabilities and assets without a list of online accounts and access information.

Google and Facebook may not cooperate when a "stranger" requests access to a deceased person's account. Disputes over online account access can go to court, even as an executor or heirs remain clueless to the full extent of an estate.

The easy fix for this dilemma is to write down every account number, name and password on paper and store it in a safe place where the right person can find it. Update the information when passwords and accounts are added or changed.

More sophisticated digital solutions are available at a cost. Websites like SecureSafe and Legacy Locker save virtual property for beneficiaries and even portion account access information to several different people, at the request of a customer. Annual or one-time fees are charged for the services.

Source: doughroller.net, "Estate Planning and Your Digital Assets," Rob Berger, Oct. 10, 2012

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