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Use a California will to define online property ownership

Millions of people in California employ social media sites to share information and images every day. Beyond the public presence, consumers are also dependent upon online sources for financial transactions that may not be recorded or stored in any other form.

Estate planning attorneys and clients concentrate heavily on tangible asset distribution and protection. A secondary but equally important consideration is how to manage access and ownership of electronic assets, like a Facebook page or an online bank account.

Sensitive information can be stored online today as readily as it was once secured in a lock box or bank in the past. Without a decedent's legal blessing to access computer logins and passwords, an estate representative or heir may have no way to reach a decedent's digital property.

The Stored Communications Act prohibits most online information sharing with anyone other than an account owner. Online businesses are not required to open electronic storage vaults, although court orders will let heirs and estate administrators gain access.

Federal and state laws regarding digital property's use are inconsistent. The conflict over legal guidance forces online companies to maintain rigid access rules. Despite debates over technology and estate laws, an updated version of the Stored Communications Act has not been introduced.

Not all online asset arguments are about property with dollar values. Sentimental worth is also compromised when families are blocked from a loved one's social media pages. Facebook once deleted accounts of deceased users. The social media site softened its approach by transforming decedent's pages into memorials.

A wall goes up between online information and the people who need it when an estate owner dies without providing digital property directions.

Governments are slow to enact helpful digital property legislation, but estate planning attorneys can help clients circumvent the problem. Include clear instructions in wills so there are no doubts about who has rights to your online assets after death.

Source:, "In death, Facebook photos could fade away forever," Lauren Gambino, March 1, 2013

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