Most people equate the word asset with tangible items or money. Accordingly, many people have not thought about what will happen to their digital lives and digital assets when they pass away. What do you want to happen to your online accounts?
The current laws have been slow to adapt to changes in society and have not caught up to the digital age. Currently, there is little legal precedent out there when it comes to management and disposition of someone's digital assets when they pass away. Texas does not have any estate laws that specifically include digital assets. In fact, only five states currently have estate laws that specifically include digital assets (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Idaho). Without legal guidance, many turn to the online companies themselves for guidance. Online companies assume that the user wants privacy, so the user agreements reflect that privacy assumption and companies limit or prohibit families of the deceased from accessing to these accounts.
Facebook has two options for a dead user's account. The account can be memorialized. The profile is left up so that friends and family can leaves posts in remembrance, but access to profile contact by "friends" is restricted. Or, in some instances, Facebook allows family members to have an account deactivated.
Yahoo states that its account is non-transferrable and, upon receipt of a copy of the a death certificate, the account may be terminated and all of its contents may be permanently deleted. While Google, in the rare case may provide access to gmail account content to an authorized representative of the account user.
While the law is uncertain, you can tell your loved ones what you want to happen with your online and social media accounts. You can include digital assets in your will, but be aware that wills eventually become public documents and the contents of the will become accessible to the public, so you may not want to put your passwords in you will.
Updated 4/11/13: Read about Google's updated account policy that allows users to determine the fate of their accounts.