Estate Planning: Social Media and the Digital Age

by Mandy Hicks

social media screen shot
Social media accounts include Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Foursquare, Vine and many others.

Virtually everyone these days has some variety of social media accounts, whether it be Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or some other form of social media (the list appears to be never-ending).  Encompassing more than just social media, nearly everyone has Internet and other electronic accounts that require maintained passwords to access.  What happens to a person’s social media accounts when that person dies?  Who has a right to access the password-maintained accounts?  Fortunately, these issues are starting to receive attention and are being addressed.

Facebook now allows its members to designate a “legacy contact” to manage the deceased persons account (to some degree) posthumously, a feature just added a few short months ago.  Facebook’s newsroom states:

Facebook is a place to share and connect with friends and family. For many of us, it’s also a place to remember and honor those we’ve lost. When a person passes away, their account can become a memorial of their life, friendships and experiences.

Today we’re introducing a new feature that lets people choose a legacy contact—a family member or friend who can manage their account when they pass away. Once someone lets us know that a person has passed away, we will memorialize the account and the legacy contact will be able to:

  • Write a post to display at the top of the memorialized Timeline (for example, to announce a memorial service or share a special message)
  • Respond to new friend requests from family members and friends who were not yet connected on Facebook
  • Update the profile picture and cover photo

If someone chooses, they may give their legacy contact permission to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information they shared on Facebook. Other settings will remain the same as before the account was memorialized. The legacy contact will not be able to log in as the person who passed away or see that person’s private messages.

Alternatively, people can let us know if they’d prefer to have their Facebook account permanently deleted after death.

As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, Google became the first major Internet company in 2013 to allow users to select digital heirs for its Gmail, cloud storage and other services, dubbed “inactive account managers.”  These services by Google and Facebook can be of great efficiency and value.

In addition to what the Internet service providers offer the consumer, however, a person and such person’s estate planner must adopt a strategy to deal with password-protected accounts in the event of that person’s death.  Few Internet service providers provide “posthumous” services.  Fortunately, there are companies such as Deathswitch that can be engaged to monitor when you are responding to electronic prompts to enter usernames and passwords.  After you fail to respond for a designated period of time, the company presumes that you have died or are critically disabled and sends out messages to whomever you wish, informing them of your death.  If you wish, passwords will be shared with designated persons as well.  This service can nicely complement the service offered “in-house” by Facebook.

If you are a diligent person and do not like the idea of a company monitoring your responses to electronic prompts or maintaining a database of your passwords, you can always manually maintain and update a list of accounts and passwords and keep them in a safe place (such as with your estate planning documents) that only trusted loved ones and your attorney are privy to.  Your wishes regarding such accounts should be documented and kept in the same safe place as well.  With the number of electronic accounts most people maintain, however, and the multitude of times a person is either prompted to change his or her password (or is forced to by an unauthorized access to an account), the “manual” method can be daunting and it is likely many accounts will not be completely up to date upon a person’s death.  Still, it is a choice that a person and his or her estate planner must decide based on what is best for each individual situation.

Estate planning in the digital age is evolving far from the traditional planning of passing your physical assets.  In addition to his or her physical presence, a person must also seriously consider his or her electronic presence, which will live on in some form or fashion after death.