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James Steinberg

Preserving (or deleting) your digital legacy is the new reality when preparing for life’s ultimate transition.

A few months ago, a couple walked into an attorney’s office with their newborn child in tow, hoping to tackle the dreary task that is estate planning. After a drawn-out, gloomy conversation about earthly possessions and the fiduciaries and executors who would ensure their proper transfer, the lawyer set aside one manila folder and opened another. “Now let’s talk about your digital assets,” he chirped.

The couple, otherwise known as “my wife” and “me,” shot him their best what’s-this-about? glance. Of course we feel strongly that our digital assets should be preserved. Future generations could learn much about the evolution of social media — indeed, much about human nature — from my wife’s Facebook roll call of birthday wishes or from my one-Tweet whine about poor customer service at Crib and Teen City. At the same time, we never thought anyone would suggest we ensure our online immortality. Well, at least not anyone who charges by the hour.

As it turns out, preserving or eradicating a digital legacy has morphed into an exacting project replete with legal and ethical pitfalls. While most of us assume that nothing dies on the Internet, the reality is far more complicated, and that’s before tallying the other assets — password-protected brokerage accounts, intellectual-property rights, unpublished photos and manuscripts — that must be accounted for when their owner shuffles off this mortal coil.

“It takes us into a corner of the Internet that we haven’t stopped to consider,” says John Romano, co-author and co-founder, with Evan Carroll, of Your Digital Afterlife and the website TheDigitalBeyond.com. “People rush into technologies headfirst, and they’re sharing like there’s no tomorrow. But they’re not thinking about it in terms of, ‘How would I get this material to my children after I’m gone?’ ”

For individuals with substantial online business interests, the stakes are higher. “Even if you are very savvy and tech-oriented and have lots of [digital] assets, like domain names, it’s almost certain that you haven’t done anything to protect yourself,” says Steven J.J. Weisman, an estate-planning attorney in Cambridge, Mass., who lectures about financial planning and estate law at Bentley University. “[Clients] say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t think about that.’ ”