04/11/2013 05:18 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Google lets users plan digital afterlife

Google users can now leave behind their Gmail messages and Google+ profile as a digital inheritance to their loved ones.

Google announced Thursday that it is rolling out a new feature called inactive account manager, which will let users determine what happens to "digital assets" from a wide range of Google services when they die or can no longer use their account.

"Not many of us like thinking about death – especially our own. But making plans for what happens after you're gone is really important for the people you leave behind," wrote Andreas Tuerk, product manager, in a Google Public Policy blog post announcing the new feature.

The inactive account manager can be accessed from a user's Google account settings page. It allows users to choose:

- The length of time after their last account sign-in before it is considered inactive. The period must be between three and 12 months.

- Contact details so that Google can try to reach you by email or text message to alert you before that period ends.

- Which of your contacts to notify that you are no longer using your account, and which of them you would like to share your data with, if any.

- Whether your account should be deleted on your behalf.

In general, there is no easy way for relatives to gain access to their loved ones' digital accounts after death. That has led to some high profile cases, such as that of a Karen Williams, an Oregon woman who fought Facebook for full access to the account of her 22-year-old son, who died in 2005.

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- RELATED:Facebook digital assets hard to reach from beyond the grave

In Canada, no legislation exists to govern the transfer of such data.

Some social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow people to report the death of a user and choose from a number of options for what to do with the deceased person's account. However, the user typically cannot decide what will happen to his or her account, beyond informing relatives ahead of time either directly or via online services such as Mywebwill, LegacyLocker and Deathswitch.