By default, the law does not treat digital assets the same way that it treats physical assets. After a person passes away, physical assets become part of the estate. Executors and loved ones are given access to the physical assets to dispose of them in accordance with an estate plan.
However, treatment of digital assets is determined by the terms of service of online companies.
This creates problems for executors who often need access to the digital assets to properly administer the estate as many technology companies make that access incredibly difficult to get.
Throughout the country state legislatures have debated this problem in an effort to reach a solution. The latest to do so is Illinois.
Its legislature is currently taking up a bill that would treat digital assets as physical assets, which would allow a court to appoint a trustee to access them. The bill is strongly opposed by technology companies and privacy groups who think the bill would be a violation of the deceased's privacy.
The State Journal Register has more on the debate in Illinois in an article titled "Bill would treat deceased's online accounts like physical assets."
This is not a debate that is going away soon. It will likely take years for any sort of consensus to develop throughout the country.
Reference: State Journal Register (April 5, 2015) "Bill would treat deceased's online accounts like physical assets."
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