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If You Got Sick Or Died, Would Your Family Be Able To Access Your Online Accounts?

(CBS) -- Protect your password. That's the warning from every online entity in the world.

But what if something happens to you? Without your password and your username, who picks up the pieces of your life?

CBS 2's Dorothy Tucker tells you how to overcome this digital dilemma.

Shannon Donahue described how her father suddenly became critically ill.

"The day before, he was up and walking around. And then 24 hours later, he was in a full coma," she says.

He took all of his passwords with him. So, the mortgage, electric, gas, credit cards were all on hold.

"He did everything online. All the bills came to his email," Donahue says. "It kind of just added an extra level of stress to everything that was going on."

The average person has 25 online accounts, from Facebook and PayPal to banks and cell phones.

Without a password, online companies enforce the privacy policies you agree to. For example, for your Yahoo email,  "contents within your account terminate upon your death."

Facebook says it's "a violation of our policies to log into another person's account" – meaning, you could lose sentimental photos.

Carl Szabo, privacy counsel for NetChoice, represents online companies.

"One of the greatest challenges that we are facing is federal law that actually forbids us from giving access to anyone who's not authorized," he says.

But, Karen Prangley says, families suffer.

"The surprising news for most people is that a lot of stuff is lost when they die. And that loses real value for family members -- sentimental and financial value," she says.

She is working to help families as part of a national committee that recently met in Washington, D.C. to draft a bill that would make it easier to transfer an individual's online accounts and digital property. Until the privacy policies change, Prangley says, consider sharing your passwords.

Her advice is to write down your username and your passwords and:

-store them on your computer and encrypt the file.

-put the information in a safety deposit box.

-or store them on a CD or USB flash drive.

You can also sign up with an online storage service, but some do charge a fee.

Donahue created a list and put it in a safe place for her mom.

"In the event something happens in the future, she knows where to find it," she says.

Donahue's father did recover. But by then the family had figured out the passwords. They were able to access his email from his cell phone. Then they had to click on "forgot password" for about a dozen different accounts and create new ones.

It was a very time-consuming process.

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