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Can Internet accounts become probate assets?

Florida residents are, no doubt, fully aware of the "digital revolution." Many people's online lives rival their "real lives" in scope and intimacy. As many Internet users know, there are myriad ways to communicate, store and share through email, photo services, and social networking websites. A question arises then: what happens to digital Internet accounts when the account holder dies?

While the answer, in most states, is murky, the Uniform Law Commission has recommended a plan that may help clarify the situation in the future. The commission is a body of representatives appointed by the various states to aid in keeping state laws as uniform as possible. Its answer to the question of digital accounts may be instructive as to the future of law on the issue.

Because "digital assets" are not traditionally recognized at probate assets, the fate of Facebook and email accounts can be a sort of limbo after the holder's death, as loved ones either don't have the information to access them, or are prohibited from doing so by the internet account provider's policies. While some sites have taken steps to address this problem, many believe that the tech provider shouldn't be the final arbiter of what happens to an individual's personal accounts. Others worry about the privacy issue of giving other people access to an individual's stored information. The Uniform Commission has proposed that legislation be introduced that would allow a decedent's personal representative to have access to, but not control over, the deceased person's accounts. So, for example, the estate could download pictures or emails, but could not post as the decedent, or send emails from the account in question.

Floridians with digital footprints should be aware of these issues, and should understand the possible avenues of approach that can be taken so that the individual's wishes are carried out with regard to his or her Internet accounts. Otherwise, it may be up to a judge in the probate court.

Source: kswt.com, "What happens to your online accounts when you die?," Anne Flaherty, July 16, 2014

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