The Digital Afterlife Debate: What Happens to Your Online Assets After You’re Gone

The digital afterlife debate over who owns the online assets of someone who has died has been in the news recently, brought to light by several families whose children have died tragically and who want access to their child’s online accounts to preserve memories and try, in the case of suicide, to make sense of a senseless act.

To date, six states — Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Virginia — have passed legislation regarding the ownership of digital assets, with legislation pending in a number of other states and at the federal level as well.

At the heart of the debate are concerns over violating privacy laws.  Facebook went to court in California last September to block the estate of a British model from getting access to her Facebook account and prevailed.

On April 11, Google introduced its Inactive Account Manager, which allows users to make a choice to either delete their data after a pre-determined length of account inactivity or to name heirs for the data from some of its most popular services, including +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube.

Google users can access the new Inactive Account Manager on their Google Account settings page.   But what about other major Internet companies that hold most of our online data?  Here is a guide to their current policies:

Facebook – Facebook will remove the account of a deceased person at the family’s request, or even “memorialize” the account (which allows friends and family members to post memorials on that person’s page).  Facebook will not disclose any passwords, transfer account ownership or turn over the contents of the account.

Twitter – Will only disclose account data with a court order; will not disclose account passwords or contents.  Account will be deactivated if family member provides Twitter with a death certificate and notarized statement.

LinkedIn — Will not disclose any passwords, transfer account ownership or turn over the contents of the account unless ordered to do so by a court.  Family members can request that an account be deleted.  Executors and others beyond family members (like an employer) can have the account hidden from public view by reporting the death to LinkedIn if they know the email address that is linked to the account.

Yahoo – Honors requests from family members to access the account of a deceased person only if that request is included in the decedent’s estate plan.  Will also deactivate an account if a death certificate is provided.

Microsoft – For Outlook and Hotmail users, Microsoft will not disclose passwords or transfer account ownership unless a family member has a court order or the permission of the account owner to access the account.  Will deactivate the account if requested to do so by a family member.

Estate planning for digital assets is evolving, with laws and practices changing all the time.  As a Personal Family Lawyer®, I can help you protect your digital assets and pass them along to heirs in the way you wish to do so.

If you would like to learn more about estate planning strategies for all your assets, not just the digitals, call our office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk.