For several years after a friend’s death, Facebook reminded me of her birthday because her profile remained active. I suspect my friend would have preferred her Facebook account to have been deleted upon her death. But that doesn’t happen automatically. How are Facebook and other online service providers informed of a user’s death? And who is in charge of what happens to the user’s account upon death? Depending on the particular digital account involved, the user may be able to set up a “legacy contact” – a person who can access the account upon death and has the authority to decide what should happen with that account.

People tend to overlook this aspect of estate planning. Certainly, few people believe the various online forums they engage with are as critical as distributing their traditional assets, such as money or real property. A typical attitude tends to be, “Who cares? I’m dead. Does it matter?” Maybe, or maybe not.

Would you prefer to have a brief period on Facebook that your account is memorialized, friends are informed of your death, information about your memorial service and tributes from your Facebook contacts can be posted, and then your profile is deleted? Or would you instead prefer that your Facebook contacts receive birthday notifications for years after your death? Would you prefer for someone to continually email you at your Gmail address, growing increasingly frustrated about the lack of response, or would you instead prefer for the emails to bounce back, notifying the sender that your Google account has been deleted? If you store photos in your Google account, would you prefer to enable someone to access and download those photos before your account is deleted? What about any YouTube videos you may have posted? If any of these issues matter, addressing your digital legacy will be an essential part of the estate planning process. If so, what are the next steps?

Heather Kelly’s recent article in the Washington Post caught my eye, “How to set up legacy contacts for your online accounts.”  Ms. Kelly explains that “there’s no industry standard for how [legacy contacts] work,” so the policies surrounding legacy contacts must be reviewed for each digital account. In particular, the article provides valuable information regarding how legacy contacts can be set up for Apple, Google, and Facebook. Each company differs considerably in terms of its process for setting up a legacy contact and what that legacy contact does and does not have the authority to do.

By identifying various online accounts, examining their policies (if any) regarding legacy contacts, and discussing key issues with an estate planning attorney, a good plan can be developed regarding how these accounts will be addressed upon death. If you need assistance with your online accounts, please let us know. We’d be happy to help.

This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.

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