Digital Estate Planning

April 17, 2012

What Happens to Facebook When You Die?

When young American soldier Justin Ellsworth was tragically killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004, his family were forced to begin the painful process of wrapping up his estate. Their problems multiplied, however, when they tried to deal with his email account, only to discover that Yahoo refused to give them access. After a months-long struggle, the family eventually obtained copies of the messages – but only by taking Yahoo to court.

What happens to your email when you die? Do your Facebook and Twitter profiles remain active forever? Is there anyone who can close your online accounts? These are important questions to answer because an on-going online presence has the potential to cause a lot of pain and suffering for loved ones. Imagine, for example:

  • Your profile continues to appear in Facebook messages, causing on-going emotional distress to your friends and relatives
  • The funds in your Paypal or online trading account are overlooked by the Executor of your Will, placing unnecessary financial burden on your family
  • Emails in your personal account are irretrievable, leaving your business partner without vital customer and vendor information
  • Photos you stored on an online photo-sharing website are lost to your family
  • Your small business’ website domain name expires, allowing a competitor to purchase it, severely impacting the viability of the business
  • Contacts post inappropriate messages to your social-networking pages, causing additional grief and turmoil for your family

This was the situation faced by Justin Ellsworth’s family, and they discovered through painful experience that although requesting access to email accounts, social networking sites, and online financial services after the death of a relative is generally possible, it’s a long and tedious process because each company has its own policies and procedures. Furthermore, some companies blanketly refuse to give access to anyone except the user, meaning that certain information may be lost permanently.

Fortunately, some simple preparation can make the entire process much less difficult. Along with planning for the distribution of your physical assets after you die, it’s a good idea to give a thought to what will happen to your “digital assets”.

Many sites stipulate in their terms and conditions that users do not have any property rights as a result of operating an online account. If there is any property arising, it should be dealt with in a person’s will.

In other cases, you can try to ease the burden for your family by leaving login details for your online accounts with someone you trust. There are a number of ways of doing this, from subscription-based online services which act as electronic “vaults” of your login information, to simply writing a list and giving it to a friend. However, whatever means you choose, it needs to be:

  • Secure – trusting the wrong person could bring disastrous consequences
  • Reliable – if you keep your list in the bottom of a box of books, chances are that it won’t be found until long after it’s needed
  • Easy to update – because if it’s not easy to modify, you are less likely to record changes to your usernames, passwords and new accounts

To assist you in compiling your digital assets, we have prepared this complimentary information sheet. Click here to download!

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