WKYT Investigates | Who has legal rights to your digital afterlife?

Published: Mar. 14, 2016 at 6:14 PM EDT
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As technology evolves, we find ourselves having to make adjustments just to keep up.

Many of us have made the decision to go paperless, trading in our envelops, stamps and checks for a user name, password and credit card. But what happens when someone dies? It's a complicated issue.

Steve Harmin, owner of Hartland Computers, says technology makes things far more complicated when someone dies. It's odd that a computer expert would be talking about death, but it's coming up now, more often than ever because he deals with the life of people online.

"They say life is complicated, wait until you see death," he told WKYT's Miranda Combs. "We used to just have physical lives but now we have these digital lives."

When physical life ends, your digital life -- a life you've updated for years with pictures, music and memories -- is in limbo

A will establishes a trust, not necessarily money, but an understanding that when your life ends, these papers will make sure your belongings are taken care of. But it's not as cut and dry with your digital belongings. In almost all of those cases, you don't actually own them, "you're just using them and your heirs don't really have rights or the ability to get to them," Harmin said.

That's where attorneys like Tim Dunn come in. Dunn specializes in estate planning.

"The assets that have the sentimental value that take the most work to get those disputes resolved," he said. "A lot of my clients have started to identify the issues that are there, like what happens to these accounts whenever i pass away."

A password manager has become a solution for many with multiple online accounts. A password manager allows a person to pass their passwords to whoever they like, but Dunn says that would not hold up in court. There is a provision on most social media sites that will not allow the user to transfer the account to someone else, meaning you aren't supposed to give out your passwords to anyone.

"So that stops it right there," he said. "It makes that type of, someone else using your account, using the information you set aside to access your account a criminal offense."

In an effort to get around that, Dunn has written an additional clause to wills for digital assets to fall to the executor.

"Adding that language in doesn't hurt anybody and potentially gives to fiduciary some type of standing to act if at all possible, if the user isn't able to do so," he said, but that's not foolproof.

"So the solution is really a legislative solution," he said.