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Passwords Live Beyond Your Death

Experts Recommend Creating List, Sharing Information With Relatives

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Only 35 percent of Americans have a will that covers their assets. Far fewer have considered what happens to their information that's password protected, from online banking info to Facebook profiles.

Take, for instance, business owner Cyndi Finkle, who 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," she said.

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

"It contains log-in information to all kinds of accounts from PayPal to eBay to Skype to bank account information," she said.

Finkle's got the right idea.

Evan Carroll and John Romano are co-authors of "Your Digital Afterlife." They say that more people are using the web to manage everything from social networking and photo sharing accounts to email, bank and investment accounts, but they end up taking their passwords to the grave.

"Files, documents, photos, all kinds of things can be lost immediately," Romano said. "If you don't leave access to things like email accounts, people may be locked out."

Taking 15 minutes to create a simple list can prevent hours of frustration for loved ones, and in some cases prevent them from having to take a trip to court to get access to that information.

Barry Jones, of the Financial Planning Association, says passing those passwords along to relatives can also help prevent financial chaos.

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

Now, a slew of digital estate planning websites promise to help keep people organized. Think of them as online safety deposit boxes.

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

Those who are still not comfortable with leaving a virtual key should simply write the info down, but don't write it in their 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," Carroll said.

People should update their list at least once a year and make sure someone knows where to find it.