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Investigation Unit: Passwords After You Pass On

Only 35 percent of Americans have a will that covers tangible assets, and experts say far fewer have considered their digital assets like email accounts, financial records and photos. What's the best way to protect them, and who should have the virtual key?
Like many of us, business owner Cyndi Finkle lives a paperless life.

"I have online accounts for everything. If something was to happen to me tomorrow, my business couldn't exist if people couldn't have access," said Finkle.

So Cyndi created a so-called "digital inventory" which contains instructions on how to unlock her online accounts. 

"It contains login information to all kinds of accounts from Pay-Pal to eBay to Skype to bank account information," said Cyndi.

Evan Carroll and John Romano are co-authors of "Your Digital Afterlife."

They say that more and more people are using the web to manage everything from social networking and photo sharing accounts to email, bank, and investment accounts, but end up taking their passwords to the grave.

"Files, documents, photos, all kinds of things can be lost immediately. If you don't leave access to things like email accounts, people may be locked out," said Romano.
 
Taking 15 minutes to create a simple list can prevent hours of frustration for your loved ones, and in some cases a trip to court to get access to that information.  

Barry Jones with the financial planning association says it can also help prevent financial chaos. 

"There are already instances of these problems coming up. They don't know what bills are due. They may not know certain accounts, for example, the husband and wife have separate credit cards," said Jones.

Now, a slew of digital estate planning websites promise to help keep you organized.

Think of them as online safety deposit boxes.  

Jeremy Toeman, creator of LegacyLocker.com said, "People can go and create a backup of all of their user names and passwords, and for each asset you identify a digital beneficiary."

Your loved ones can receive this information upon your death. But before you sign up, it's important to do your homework. 

"Get very comfortable with who they are and what they do and their processes. I would suggest that you read their policies on security and privacy," said Romano.

If you're still not comfortable with leaving a virtual key, simply write the information down, but don't write it in your will.

"Your will becomes a public record after you're gone, and if those passwords have not been changed, then anyone could gain access to them," said Carroll.

Cyndi wrote her passwords in a book, and passed the info along to her husband and close friend. 

"It really gives me peace of mind," said Finkle.

Experts say you should update your list at least once a year, and make sure someone knows where to find it.
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