Most people have at least a vague idea about the importance of properly wrapping up their loved ones’ real world affairs after they die. Transferring the ownership of the house. Closing the bank accounts. Selling the car. The rules and procedures for doing these things have been in development for as long as any of us have been alive. Properly wrapping up your virtual affairs, however, is becoming just as crucial. And unlike with real world affairs, wrapping up your virtual affairs requires a trip into territory that is still largely uncharted.

Online services increasingly critical in many people’s day-to-day lives

What, for instance, will happen to your Facebook, Twitter, Google, Pinterest, Tumblr, and other accounts if you unexpectedly pass away? If someone who is unaware that you’re gone sends you an important e-mail, will they receive notification that the e-mail wasn’t received? If you receive bills electronically, will your spouse be notified when those bills are due?

These are tricky questions that don’t yet have easy or consistent answers. The most obvious solution, but one with which most people probably wouldn’t feel comfortable, would be to provide your login information to someone who could take control of your accounts after you can no longer access them. Given the increasing importance and sensitivity of things we do on-line these days, however, sharing your login information would require the highest level of trust. And one that doesn’t necessarily come with any legal protection if that trust gets abused. Even if you’re not up to anything nefarious, most people probably consider their e-mail and other password-protected accounts to be highly personal space that they don’t want others to be able to tromp around in at their whim.

Products for wrapping up your virtual affairs in development

Some on-line providers have begun to offer solutions to this problem. Last month, Google introduced the euphemistically named “Inactive Account Manager.” This service gives you a way to provide Google with instructions on what it should do with your data if you haven’t accessed it for a long time. Options include instructing Google to destroy the data or identifying trusted people who Google can allow to access it. Facebook has a request form that you can use to ask that a person’s page be converted into a memorial site.

These services offer a good start to solving this tricky issue. But as long as only some websites are offering widely varying procedures for handling an account owner’s death, managing a deceased person’s on-line profile will likely continue to become a larger and more difficult part of closing out their affairs. As the population of people who use online services continues to age, the need for a more standard approach to dealing with this issue will become increasingly critical.

Update (5/26/13): Two days after I posted this entry, the New York Times ran an article addressing this issue. The article mentions some additional services available for dealing with this problem, and also notes the potential value your data may have for your loved ones after you’re gone.