Digital Life After Death: What Happens To One’s Social Media and Online Storage Accounts After Death?

updatestatussadfacejpgWith an estimated 1.23 billion active monthly Facebook users at the end of 2013, nearly 1 out of every 6 people on planet earth have at least some identity or presence on line.  In the United States, nearly 1 out of 3 people review or update their Facebook account each day!  We share photos, vacation highlights, accomplishments, bad news, political commentary, cat videos, and we give and receive congratulations and support.  In some ways, at least some part of us ‘exists’ on line.

Have you ever wondered what happens to your online presence when you pass away?   For example, what happens to your Facebook Timeline, your LinkedIn account, and all of the photos you have stored and shared on Shutterfly?  Like your personal effects and bank accounts, you have the power to choose who should have access to your online accounts after your death using carefully drafted estate planning documents, subject, of course, to the terms and conditions of any particular website.  When I draft a Will or a Trust for a client, I include provisions naming a person or persons my client would like to have access to his or her digital assets after death.

Most websites have terms and conditions that you have agreed to in order to participate in the forum, and you should read them.  Many websites will honor your wishes if you have included wording in your Will or Trust regarding digital account but, as mentioned previously, some websites will have their own procedures that will trump the instructions you leave in your estate planning documents.  It is important to acquaint yourself with the terms and conditions of all websites you are utilizing and take appropriate measures to ensure that the digital assets stored on that website would not be lost in the event of your unexpected demise.  Consider leaving a list of websites and corresponding user names and passwords for your personal representative with your Will.

Just as one example, Facebook has a clear policy for how it handles the accounts of deceased users.  Facebook will memorialize the user’s Timeline upon notification of the death of the user.  The request to memorialize the account can be made by anyone who knew the deceased user.  You can submit a Facebook Memorialization Request by clicking here.  Once the death is confirmed by Facebook, the account will become memorialized, meaning that the deceased user cannot obtain new friends, users will not be able to post to the deceased user’s Timeline, and other personal information will be removed.

This is an ever-evolving area of the law, as are most internet-related issues.  As users of the fast-paced technology, it is our responsibility to review the policies of the sites we use and make appropriate provisions to protect ourselves both during life and even after death.  Be sure to review the terms and conditions as well as the personal settings of every social media website and digital storage website you utilize.  A well written estate plan along with a list of sites and login information will go a long way in the event your personal representative ever has to start picking up the pieces of your digital estate.  If you have an estate plan, review it to see whether there are provisions regarding your digital estate or websites that you use regularly.  If there are no provisions or if it has been more than a three years since your estate plan was drafted, make an appointment with an estate planning attorney to discuss your options and to update your plan.

Emily Towne McNeil is an estate planning and probate attorney at the Boston law firm of Vaughn-Martel Law.

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