There has been some legislative progress for surviving family members. At least three states -- Idaho, Nebraska and Indiana -- have enacted laws that allow next of kin to gain access to digital accounts, Carroll says. Other states, including New York, North Carolina and Oregon, are also considering making changes.
Laws are more relaxed with e-mail and other content that users create. Gmail details a process for heirs to obtain access to accounts. Yahoo states that its account is not transferable. But its stance was successfully challenged in a lawsuit several years ago when a judge granted the father of a soldier who had died in Iraq access to his son's Yahoo e-mail account. "You have to jump through some hoops," Carroll says.
To prevent estate issues, digital media owners should plan ahead, Carroll advises. Users can specify information -- passwords and accounts to be passed on -- in their will. "If we choose to do nothing, we're leaving things to chance," he says.
Some data-inheritance services have also emerged in recent years, promising a secure place to store documents and passwords that will be passed on to a stated beneficiary upon the account holder's death.
Switzerland-based DSwiss, which offers free and paid "password locker" accounts, says its SecureSafe service is increasingly offered by Swiss banks to their account holders. With users' information stored securely in the servers in the Swiss Alps, "not even we can get access to this data," says Andreas Jacob, DSwiss' head of marketing.