Mention estate planning and most people think about leaving money or a house to people who survive them.
But what about all the stuff you’ve posted on social media sites. What happens to that?
Facebook made headlines in February 2015 announcing new “legacy settings”. Facebook surveyed its users, finding that 71% of adult users want all their online communications to remain private after they pass away unless they give prior consent. 43% want their accounts deleted unless they designate someone in advance.
New Estate Planning Area: Digital Estate Planning
Social media sites now increasingly allow users to plan the fate of their accounts after they die. “Digital inheritance” is defined as:
“the process of handing over personal digital assets such as digital estates to human beneficiaries with permission to use them”.
Allied Academies, New Orleans Congress, 2006
How does it work? When a Facebook user dies, a family member or friend can electronically notify Facebook of their death through the online Facebook Help Center. Once the death becomes confirmed by an obituary, death certificate, or other form of proof, Facebook memorializes by adding “Remembering” above the user’s name. If a Legacy contact has been assigned, they are contacted.
What is a Legacy Contact?
A legacy contact is someone chosen by the user to control their Facebook account after they pass away. The legacy contact has the option to control and manage friend requests, profile and cover photos, can write a pinned post on the dead user’s profile, and has the option to download an archive photos, posts, and information that has been previously shared on the account.
Legacy contacts cannot view the dead user’s messages, edit or delete previous posts, or delete friends. Facebook users can choose to have their account deleted after their death instead of memorializing the page. Facebook legacy options are available by clicking into settings, then selecting security. At that point the legacy options appear.
Digital Estate Planning with Social Media
Other social media providers offer other digital estate planning options.
Google offers an “Inactive Account Manager” option. This allows users to transfer ownership and control of their inactive accounts to a designated person. If the Google account user does not select another user to manage their account, the account is automatically deleted after nine months of inactivity.
YouTube also uses Google’s “Inactive Account Manager” to allow users to designate someone else to take over.
Twitter does not allow for ownership of its accounts to be transferred. The only option here is deactivation of the account after proof is provided with a death certificate, or after six months pass without activity on the account.
My Space memorializes inactive accounts, similarly to Facebook.
LinkedIn and Pinterest both allow accounts to remain inactive unless a family member, friend or law enforcement authority requests that the account be deactivated.
Digital Estate Planning: Personal Level
Some users find the use of a dead person’s page to be emotionally overwhelming. It can be hard to get over a loss of a close friend or family member when they appear in your news feed because they changed their profile picture or they “like” other’s posts. But the process of memorializing an account locks and freezes the account forever, or until someone petitions to have the account removed.
People assume that to avoid choosing a Legacy contact, memorializing the account, or having someone petition to delete the account that they could just give a trusted person their login, but that violates Facebook’s terms of service. If the account is left memorialized then the account can only be viewed by current friends, so they will never appear in prompts such as “People You May Know” or in birthday reminders. Therefore, users will only see activity on the account if they specifically search out the memorialized page.
Why Digital Estate Planning is Important
If Facebook keeps growing, by one estimate, in 2130 dead Facebook users will outnumber live Facebook users. If Facebook remains static, then that doesn’t happen until 2065. Nonetheless, the legacy and deletion options should help control those results.
Estate planning presents enough stress. It forces us all to face our own immortality, and then to make choices about who gets what. Digital estate planning adds a new dimension. But it’s a challenge worth contemplating.
Research & writing assistance by Tracey Beecher.