State lets heirs access dead person's online accounts

Delaware has become the first state in the nation to give heirs the right to access the online accounts and other digital content of someone has died.

Under the new law, such material will be treated like any other physical asset. The issue of digital rights for heirs has received increased attention with the rise of social networks, blogs and other ways that people leave traces of themselves online. People who lose a loved one have often found that digital material can be out of bounds, even to a parent, because of privacy laws.

Although some U.S. states have passed more limited legislation to give survivors legal rights over a dead person's digital content, Delaware has taken a more expansive approach . For example, Virginia gives parents access to a dead child's digital accounts, but the state restricts access by siblings or other family members.

The proliferation of personal online content, particularly through social media, has raced ahead of probate law, which governs the assignment of a deceased's assets. Although authors, artists, photographers, inventors and others who created intellectual property might appoint an executor for their creative assets, most people only considered financial and physical property.

And then there are the policies of corporations. Social networks like Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) routinely forbid people to share their passwords. Given their terms of service, unless legally compelled they can refuse to cooperate with heirs.

But with the growth of online life, hundreds of millions have posts, status lines, photos, videos, personal avatars and other material posted on the Internet. Family and friends might want access to such content, or the assets could have financial value, including for famous people who have died.

Because probate is covered by state law, however, individual states will have to pass their own versions of Delaware's law for digital rights to be broadly available.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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