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E-mail is more complicated. Would you want, say, your parents to be able to access your account so they could contact all your far-flung friends whom you don't have in your address book because you don't have an address book and tell them that you've passed on? Maybe. Would you want them to be able to read every message you've ever sent? Maybe not.
Yahoo! Mail's rule is to keep accounts private. "The commitment Yahoo! makes to every person who signs up for an account is to treat their online activities as confidential, even after their death," says spokesman Jason Khoury. Court orders sometimes overrule that. In 2005, relatives of a Marine killed in Iraq requested access to his e‑mail account so they could make a scrapbook. When a judge sided with the family, Yahoo! copied the messages to a CD instead of turning over the account's password. Hotmail now allows family members to order a CD as long as they provide proof that they have power of attorney and a death certificate. Gmail requires the same paperwork, plus a copy of an e‑mail the deceased sent to the petitioner.
If that sounds like a lot of trouble to put your loved ones through, several companies are eager to help you plan ahead for a fee, of course. Legacy Locker, Asset Lock and Deathswitch are among the firms offering encrypted space for people to store their passwords and other information. "Digital legacy is at best misunderstood and at worst not thought about," says Legacy Locker founder Jeremy Toeman, who came up with the idea for his company midflight, when he was imagining what would happen to his many Web domains if the plane crashed. "I would be surprised if five years from now, it's not common for people to consider their digital assets alongside their wills."
His San Francisco-based site is looking to handle all the details of your online afterlife for $30 a year or a onetime fee of $300. To determine whether you have passed on, the firm will check with two "verifiers" (people you have designated to confirm your death) and examine a death certificate.
Deathswitch, which is based in Houston, has a different system for releasing the funeral instructions, love notes and "unspeakable secrets" it suggests you store with your passwords and account info. The company will regularly send you e‑mail prompts to verify that you're still alive, at a frequency of your choosing. (Once a day? Once a year?) After a series of unanswered prompts, it will assume you're dead and release your messages to intended recipients. One message is free; for more, the company charges members $19.95 a year.