Now you can send e-mail after your death

The Baltimore Sun

We post details on Facebook and MySpace about our lives. It was only a matter of time before we turned to the Internet to spread the word about our deaths.

A handful of sites have sprung up in recent years that allow you to store information that won't be opened until you die, including e-mail that can be sent months or even years after you're gone.

Before you say "ewww," consider: Once gone, you can have e-mail sent to loved ones that tell them one more time what they meant to you. Or be practical and tie up loose ends. Notify, say, The Sun's circulation department that you died and want to cancel your subscription or let your bowling league know it needs to find your replacement.

The sites might seem a bit macabre in a culture that's uncomfortable talking about death. But some sites say they are basically electronic safe-deposit boxes that will make life easier for your survivors, who won't have to hunt for documents or guess your wishes.

You can store passwords and bank account numbers, leave instructions on your funeral, or disclose where you stashed the life insurance policy and other papers needed to settle your estate. Information can be updated as long as you're alive.

"They can be a useful tool," says Kathleen Coulahan, vice president with M&T; Bank's trust department. "It's a way for somebody to centralize information."

They are not meant to replace estate planning. You still need to draw up a will - on paper - and preferably with the help of a lawyer.

And Coulahan adds that you can't avoid talking about your plans with relatives or others, because someone will need to notify the Internet service provider of your death, open your account and launch your e-mail.

Collin Harris, a Nevada computer programmer, started YouDeparted.com two years ago. He recently changed the name to the less catchy AssetLock.net.

Harris says he got the idea when his father died after a short illness in 2000.

"No one knew if he had insurance. It was confusing. He didn't leave a trail," Harris says. Even now, the family isn't sure it discovered all the father's accounts.

Harris says AssetLock is secure and uses the same encryption technology as the National Security Agency's. You set the terms about who can open your account and when.

Safeguards are installed to prevent those you trusted with passwords and codes to your account from taking an early, sneak peak at your will. Once AssetLock is notified of your death, it will send out e-mail to you and others named on your account to confirm your death. Access to the account will be denied if it hears you're still with us. And, just in case you're traveling and not checking your e-mail, you can set up a time delay for when the account can be opened, say, two weeks after your reported death.

"It keeps everybody honest," Harris says.

Fees are based on the amount of storage. They range from $9.95 a year for storage that's more than enough to cover the basics up to $79.95 a year for 5 gigabytes. That's enough to store 71,250 photos or 125,000 pages of documents. Harris says he has more than 10,000 subscribers.

Californian Steve Holetz is one of them. His account holds his credit card and bank account numbers, family medical histories, a copy of his living will and contact information for the lawyer and accountant.

He's jotted down which personal items will go to his heirs. For instance, his golf clubs will go to his youngest son while the family piano will go to his oldest. He has also pre-loaded brief e-mail messages that his wife and two sons will receive at his death.

"I'm looking at it for practical purposes," the 45-year-old says. "I don't want my kids or my wife to have to work hard at finding materials and information."

Five-year-old Privatematters .com in Canada has more than 3,700 members.

Besides storing documents or last instructions, Privatematters allows you to send an unlimited number of e-mail messages for up to one year after your death. The company's Web site says you can use e-mail to tell a secret, dispense advice, forgive someone or ask for forgiveness, and to "get things off your chest."

But wouldn't it be better to have these discussions while you're still alive?

"That's a common question," says founder Martin Hubbard. Some people find it difficult to talk about their emotions or like leaving a final goodbye, he says. Or, you might want to send a message to explain why you bequeathed an item to a friend.

Hubbard says he consulted with grief counselors about the effect of getting e-mail from the long-departed. Some said it would be disturbing to recipients, but others viewed it as a gentle goodbye, he says.

It costs $69 to join, plus $12 a year.

Other overseas sites, such as Mylastemail.com, Letterfrombeyond.com and Post Expression, appear more focused on the e-mail feature. Post Expression's Web site says it can deliver e-mail years after your death. For example, the site says, you can have e-mail sent out for children's future birthdays or, if you play sports, send messages to your former teammates. "They will hardly expect it. Imagine the shock," Post Expression says.

Yes, imagine.

Estate planning lawyers have mixed reactions.

Towson lawyer Michael Hodes sees the benefit of having a deceased's information in one spot. "So many people die and you can't find valuable assets," he says.

Plus, it can be very meaningful to those who lost a parent at a young age to later receive an e-mail from that parent at some milestone in their lives, like their 18th or 25th birthday, Hodes says.

Lutherville lawyer Jason Frank is skeptical. "That's really twisted. If you want to say something nice to someone, say it while you're alive and they can appreciate it," Frank says.

E-mail from the grave can open old wounds, he says. "The whole grieving process may have to start all over again."

And he envisions people using e-mail to take a parting shot, like telling an ex-spouse: "We're divorced and you will never get a nickel of that estate."

"I do think some of that goes on," says Privatematters' Hubbard. "Humans will be humans." He adds that most messages are likely nice, not nasty.

If you decide to send posthumous e-mail, here is some etiquette advice from Anna Post at the Emily Post Institute:

*Let people know in advance that you want to send them an e-mail after death. That won't lessen the value, but it will prepare them, she says. It also gives them the chance to decline if they find it too disturbing.

*And send messages that are considerate, respectful and honest.

"I would take it very seriously," she says.

"It might be the most important message you composed. These are your final words."

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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