The Age Old Question: What Happens to Your Social Network When you Die?
It’s a bit grim to discuss, but eventually we all leave this place. Frequent questions leading up to this inevitable departure include: How can I best take care of my family? Who will take care of my pets? To whom should I bequeath my car? And, just as important, what should I do with my social networking and digital sites?
For those astute enough to contemplate the latter question, at least one social network has an answer that will allow you to rest in peace: Facebook has established a “legacy” function that allows you to dictate what will occur with your personal pages when you slip the surly bonds of earth. The “legacy” feature allows you to appoint a contact responsible for informing Facebook that you are no longer going to be around to post updates, pet videos, or selfies, and that your profile should either be taken down or placed in “memorial mode”. The legacy contact you appoint can act on your behalf in your afterlife, writing memorial posts on your wall as well as accepting and denying new friend requests. They can also change your cover photo and profile picture so you’re remembered in your best light.[i]
Before offering this recent legacy contact function, Facebook kept users’ pages open well past their expiration dates, but did not allow friends or loved ones access to make updates or manage the page. Does the idea of your appointed contact rummaging through your Facebook account make you a little nervous? No need to worry: your “legacy contact” will be unable to login as you, so they cannot view your private messages, synced-but-not-posted photos, or security settings (unless you consent by will or other legal document).[ii] Of course, you can certainly opt out of appointing a legacy contact and just have your Facebook page permanently close upon concluding the final chapter of your life.
Facebook’s new legacy feature may be in response to something known as the Digital Assets Act, legislation designed to help executors of estates gain access to digital accounts.[iii] The Digital Assets Act provides that, “unless account-holders instruct otherwise, legally appointed fiduciaries will have the same access to digital assets as they have always had to tangible assets.” [iv] A digital asset is essentially any data that exists in the digital world; nearly every individual today has at least one digital asset, if not five. Typical assets include birth records, health records, online bank accounts, blogs, social media sites, user names and passwords.
Of course, online accounts generally contain important and sensitive information. Given the unabated growth of online presence, there is a growing necessity to provide access after death. This is especially true relative to social networks because if participants agree to the associated terms of service – such as in the case of Facebook – the provisions of the Digital Assets Act are void.[v] In other words, any terms of service you agree to will take precedence and so a special request for access would have to be submitted to gain access after the fact.
So, while the act of appointing a legacy contact is a bit morose, it’s worth your time contemplating. People used to store their important files, bills, photos, and thought pieces in cabinets and/or storage lockers. Many would designate or grant an executor control over these items upon their death. Estate attorneys would often sift through boxes and intercept paper documents via the U.S. Postal Service. Today, much of what we create and save occurs over the Internet: we store our information online, bank online, express ourselves through blogs, have Youtube accounts containing original videos, and write emails vice letters. It should surprise no one that sifting through digital footprints and accessing information is now a common task for estate attorneys.
Despite the digital property they have acquired over time, most people forget its importance when creating a will. Just imagine what it would be like for someone to sort through your digital life: Instagram, e-filed tax returns, online banking accounts, Facebook, Tumblr, photo sharing accounts, and more. Given the amount and nature of data stored, it would be prudent to designate either a proxy to maintain control of this data on your behalf or enable them access by providing a list of digital property, usernames, and passwords or a digital heir for sites that allow this.[vi]
If you’re thinking this is not an issue for you, take a quick mental snapshot of your digital life. If you were someone else, would you have a tough time sorting through and assessing all your online accounts and associated data? I can barely remember my usernames and passwords to access my various accounts, let alone review their digital contents. This is why I plan to ensure my fiduciary won’t have a similar issue down the road. Facebook’s legacy contact feature is one big step forward, but merely scratches the surface of options for our digital life once we take our final step into the sunset.
In case you’re rushing to establish your legacy on Facebook, here’s a quick primer on assigning your legacy contact: 1) Go to your Facebook page settings, 2) click “Security”, 3) use the legacy contact “Edit” option, and 4) decide whether you want Facebook to send your contact an awkward message letting them know they’re the “chosen one”. The process, albeit awkward, is effective. And it may leave you with one less worry when you reach the other side.