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The Digital Headstone: Planning for Social Media After Death

by Brian Chou

What happens to your Facebook account when you die?  Is your twitter account going to tweet on when you are no longer around?  Believe it or not, death is changing.

Death is one of those constants in life that we can count on.  We can say with relative certainty that, barring any miraculous advances in technology, we will all pass away at some point.  We have all experienced death, whether at the funeral of a loved one, at a War Memorial, or when watching the Godfather. During these scenes, we are often confronted with a physical representation of the deceased: a gravestone; an urn; or flowers placed at the foot of a telephone pole.  With the advent of social media, these memorials are turning up more and more in electronic form.

For instance, let’s take Facebook for example.  When a Facebook account holder passes away, the company allows the decedent’s page to be memorialized.  Memorializing an account still allows friends and family to post in remembrance, but it secures the account so that no one can sign-in to it.  It also prevents the profiles from being suggested as friends to other members and only confirmed friends can post on or find in search a profile that has been memorialized.  This allows the account to remain as a digital memorial where loved ones can go to remember the deceased through photos and comments which were posted both during life and after death.  Often times this serves as a much richer preservation of the deceased’s life than an inscription on a headstone.  It also is much more accessible to loved ones and allows for interactivity amongst friends and family as they post messages in memory of the deceased.

One of the issues which is increasingly garnering attention is the ownership of social media after someone has passed away.  Oklahoma recently passed a law which allows friends or relatives to take control of social media accounts if the deceased person lived in the state.  The measure essentially treats Facebook, Twitter and email accounts as digital assets that could be closed or continued by an appointed representative.  Nebraska and Oregon are both working on similar legislation.

Given the increasing relevance of social media, it is prudent to consider how you want these accounts to be treated in the event of your passing.  Creating a “virtual asset instruction letter” which lists online information and passwords will allow your appointed loved ones the requisite access to your accounts.  You should also give your loved ones instructions as to how you would like your accounts managed or if you would like the accounts to be terminated.  People have even gone so far as to name “online executors” and itemizing account passwords in their wills.

As social media use is most prevalent amongst young people, I’m sure many readers may not have estate planning high on their list of priorities.  However, it is fairly simple and inexpensive to put your wishes in writing.  Even an informal document may help to give your loved ones direction and access to what is increasingly becoming the most important documentation of your life: your social media accounts.

Brian Y. Chou is an estate planning attorney based in Southern California at the Law Firm of Bezaire Ledwitz & Borncamp.

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