It’s never easy when a loved one dies. And while in our hearts and minds their spirit lives on—so does their social media. When photos, posts or memories surface unexpectedly, it can be a jarring experience for those who are still healing from the loss.
Managing the digital afterlife is “something that people should think about but don’t,” says Jed Brubaker, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. “There’s a whole societal infrastructure—coroners, cemeteries, funeral directors—for how we think about death. For the most part, that has not extended very well to digital content broadly and social media specifically.”
Select a digital executor
Just as you assign an executor of your will, it’s important to assign someone as your “digital executor,” and to make plans now for what will happen to your online photos, videos, e-mail accounts and social media accounts after you pass.
Your digital executor could be your legal executor or someone else you trust. He or she will be tasked with managing your online accounts and digital property after your death.
These responsibilities may include:
- Archiving personal files, photos and videos.
- Deleting files from your computer or other devices, or erasing hard drive(s).
- Closing certain online accounts, such as social media accounts, subscription services or any accounts that are paid for (i.e., Amazon Prime).
- Transferring any transferable accounts to heirs.
- Collecting and transferring any money or usable credits to your heirs.
- Transferring any income-generating items (reselling accounts, websites, blogs etc.) to your heirs.
- Informing any online communities or online friends of your death.
What you can do now
Passing on your passwords is essential. With many digital assets, privacy policies will prevent survivors from accessing your accounts without them.
If you do nothing else, record all passwords so your executor can manage or close your accounts after your death. Store the list in a mutually agreed upon and secure place. Don’t put passwords in your will, as that becomes a public document.
Communicate your wishes
It’s important to communicate your wishes while you’re still here to do so. Spell out how you want each of your online accounts handled. Some questions to consider: Do you want your accounts permanently deleted? Do you want some photos, communication and posts to remain available for family members and friends to view?
Take time to read the terms and conditions of each site you deal with to find out what can be done with your online presence after you pass.
Some sites—such as Google (including its subsidiary, YouTube)—allow you to designate someone who can access your data in the event that your account goes inactive. You can set up an Inactive Account Manager to care for your account after death.
According to Google, your Inactive Account Manager will only receive notification once your account has been inactive for the specified amount of time. They will not receive any notification during setup.
It’s important to select an Inactive Account Manager while you’re alive, says Google. “We recognize that many people pass away without leaving clear instructions about how to manage their online accounts. We can work with immediate family members and representatives to close the account of a deceased person where appropriate….We cannot provide passwords or other login details. Any decision to satisfy a request about a deceased user will be made only after a careful review.”
For social media behemoth Facebook, you can choose to either appoint a legacy contact or have your account permanently deleted from Facebook.
If you choose to have your account permanently deleted, all of your messages, photos, posts, comments, reactions and information will be immediately and permanently removed from Facebook once the company is notified of your death.
If you don’t choose to have your account permanently deleted, it will be memorialized if Facebook is made aware of your passing. Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away.
If you appoint a legacy contact for your memorialized page, he or she can accept friend requests on behalf of your memorialized account, pin a tribute post to the profile and change the profile picture/cover photo. If the memorialized account has an area for tributes, your legacy contact will be able to decide who can see and who can post tributes.
It’s important to select a legacy contact and outline your wishes before you pass, says Brubaker, who consulted with Facebook on the design of the legacy contact solution. “We hear from lots of bereaved a really deep anxiety around not wanting to disrespect or dishonor the memory of their loved one but being left with a kind of ambiguity and uncertainty about what they should do.”
Twitter will deactivate an account upon request if a user dies. According to the company, an immediate family member or someone authorized to act on behalf of the deceased must send in their own ID and information about the deceased, including a copy of the death certificate, if they wish to close the account.
In some cases, Twitter will remove images or tweets published before or after a person’s death. For instance, an image that shows a critical injury.
Most other social media sites including LinkedIn and Instagram, and e-mail providers like Microsoft and Yahoo also have policies for handling deceased accounts. You will need to check your e-mail and social media accounts individually, as company policies vary by platform.
“This area of the law is new and evolving,” says David Carlson, JD, Vice President and Senior Trust Officer for Members Trust Company. “Both the federal government and various states have passed laws that govern the access of electronic accounts during incapacity and after death. Many of these statutes are broad and sometimes conflict, so people should spend sufficient time planning for their digital assets.”
Estate Planning Help
Estate planning has become increasingly complicated in the digital age. If you have questions, contact the experienced Wealth Advisors at Tower Wealth Management, the financial services group located at Tower Federal Credit Union. We are here to help. To get started, call 301-497-7062 or 866-56-TOWER, ext. 7062, or visit Invest at towerfcu.org.
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