What happens to your online accounts when you die?

WASHINGTON — You have probably decided who gets the house or that family heirloom up in the attic when you die. But what about your e-mail account and all those photos stored online?

Grieving relatives might want access for sentimental reasons or to settle financial issues. But do you want your mom reading your exchanges on an online dating profile or a spouse going through e-mails?

The Uniform Law Commission, whose members are appointed by state governments to help standardize state laws, Wednesday backed a plan that would give loved ones access to — but not control of — the deceased’s digital accounts, unless specified otherwise in a will.


To become law in a state, the legislation would have to be adopted by the legislature. If it did, a person’s online life could become as much a part of estate planning as deciding what to do with physical possessions.

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‘‘This is something most people don’t think of until they are faced with it. They have no idea what is about to be lost,’’ said Karen Williams of Beaverton, Ore., who sued Facebook for access to her 22-year-old son’s account after he died in a 2005 motorcycle accident.

The question of what to do with one’s ‘‘digital assets’’ is as big as America’s electronic footprint. A person’s online musings, photos and videos — such as a popular cooking blog or a gaming avatar that has acquired a certain status online — can be worth considerable value to an estate. The trove of digital files for someone of historical or popular note — say former president Bill Clinton or musician Bob Dylan — could be extremely valuable.

‘‘Our e-mail accounts are our filing cabinets these days,’’ said Suzanne Brown Walsh, an attorney who led the drafting committee on the legislation.

But privacy activists are skeptical of the proposal. Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said a judge’s approval should be needed for access, to protect the privacy of both the owners of accounts and the people who communicate with them.