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After death: the difference between dealing with digital assets and other assets

My answer when asked the following question: "What's the difference between, for instance, opening a bedroom drawer of someone who passed away and discovering old love letters, to opening an e-mail account of someone who passed away and dealing with the e-mails in it?" 
  • A person usually has only one bedroom, with clearly visible drawers in it, so the number of drawers needed to go through can be known in advance. The space in each drawer is limited, so the approximate time needed to go through it all could be estimated. Hidden compartments are usually found only in the movies. Even if one of these drawers is locked, the key could probably be located among his belongings, or the drawer could be broken into quite easily. If not, a locksmith could be called, who could open it without being exposed to the content in it. 
  • A person could have several e-mail accounts, which will not be all clearly visible or known to you. Even if you do know of them, you will not necessarily have the passwords to access all of them. In order to break into them, a pro might be needed (say, a computer technician), which means a stranger will gain access to something very private and personal. Another possibility is that you'll find yourself at the mercy of the various e-mail providers and their policy in this matter. The space of each e-mail account could be vast - bordering on limitless - you could find yourselves faced with thousands of e-mails in each one of them. (More information about the various policies can be found in my 2nd article for ynet and in my posts: Technical guide, The Legal Aspect and The Israeli Angle.) 

  • Love letters could be addressed to or from an anonymous person, whom you will not be able to identify nor contact. 
  • In e-mails, the to / from fields are visible.
  • If the bedroom drawers are at the home of the deceased person, chances are there won't be any legal debate regarding whom the content of the drawers belongs to: the deceased, and therefore, you, as their rightful successor. Worst case scenario, you might have to deal with other family members who might want some of the letters you came across inside these drawers. 
  • When we're talking about the content inside e-mails, if it's a web-based e-mail service, you might find yourselves having to prove ownership of that e-mail account and having the right to access it, and the policy of the e-mail provider might not be in line with how you feel about it. In such a difficult, sensitive time, you might find yourself dealing with outsiders regarding an issue you see as very personal, an issue you feel should have been dealt with inside the family's inner circle only. (More information in my Legal Aspect and Technical Guide posts). 
  • In the past, people (especially men) used to have a hidden stash of porn tapes / magazines in their closet or under their bed. If they had a spouse, their spouse probably knew about this private collection and therefore, could throw it away before other family members entered the home of the deceased. If he or she didn't have a spouse, a friend or a family member would have come across this horde and had to deal with a moment of awkwardness. 
  • Today, there's a pretty good chance you won't come across any printed porn magazines or porn video tapes, but you will have to deal with finding porn on the computer. There are several online guides about how to both hide the computer porn and how to get rid of it, but if the deceased didn't get a chance to learn how to do the former, you might find yourselves doing the latter.
  • Usually, a normative person has a single physical identity and a certain amount of physical assets. When you go over it after they pass away, you go through the contents of a room, an apartment or a house, sometimes also through a shed or a garage or a storeroom, but even if they used to hoard many objects, the sum of all his physical assets is limited. 
  • A person could have multiple online personas and still be a normative person. If they were active online, they could have left behind many digital and online assets which you will find difficult to follow, let alone manage. Think of the trail of digital breadcrumbs we leave behind, on top of our e-mail accounts: Picasa, Flickr, YouTube, Google Plus, Foursquare, forums, blogs, Twitter, Linkedin, Myspace... The time you'll need just to go through it all, let alone manage it (save? delete? backup?), will probably take a lot longer than going through any crowded storage room.
  • Most normative people, who aren't compulsive hoarders, sort their possessions and throw away some of their physical assets every once in a while. We cherish certain items of course, maintain a certain collection or keep an artifact for nostalgic reasons, but during spring cleaning (or Passover cleaning), or when moving to a new apartment, most people will sort their physical possessions and throw away those they no longer need. Upon entering their home, we'll find mostly stuff that was relevant to the later / latest time of their life. 
  • Since virtual and digital possessions do not require a physical storing space, a lot of people never get around to sort or go through it, let alone delete some of it. We might find ourselves facing emails dating back to 2004, for example, which aren't relevant to any one any more, but were not deleted. (And thank you Shiri Yeshua for emphasizing this). 

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