As digital media becomes the norm in today’s society, there are many questions surrounding the chain of command when it comes to accessing and inheriting the digital media files that have become part of our identity. For many of us, a large part of that digital identity is our Facebook account. However, few have given consideration to what happens to that part of a person’s estate, and the information it contains, after death.
Up until just a few years ago people stored their important documents in file cabinets and safety deposit boxes. Typically, gaining access to these records was not difficult for a deceased person’s personal representative, especially if the decedent had left a proper paper trail for the personal representative to follow.
Not surprisingly, things have changed. With the now-widespread use of digital media, much of an individual’s records and documents are stored either on a computer, digital drive, or via Cloud Computing, meaning that they are stored online. These digital assets pose a potential problem to personal representatives, especially if the decedent has not made provisions for access in his or her paper records.
Oddly, and in spite of the vast array of challenges Cloud Computing presents to personal representatives and family members, the real question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is, “what happens to my Facebook account when I die?”
At first glance, the answer to this question is fairly straightforward.
Once Facebook has been notified of an account-holders death (which anyone may report), the account is “memorialized.” This means that the FB Timeline (as it is know at present) becomes a memorial wall to the decedent. Friends and family may still post to the timeline and send messages to the person, making the Timeline something akin to a virtual wake in the memory of the person who has passed away.
The caveat, however, is that once an account as been memorialized, its login credentials are suspended. This means no one can login as the decedent and post on their behalf or manage the account. This can pose a problem if there are posts on the Timeline that, perhaps, should not be memorialized or are insensitive in their nature.
It also means that Facebook retains their rights to the decedent’s information, as outlined in their Terms of Service, which currently grants the company the rights to, “use, copy, publicly display, publicly perform, reformat, excerpt and distribute” any content on an individual’s Timeline as they see fit. Meaning the personal digital effects stored on
Facebook’s Cloud are essentially the private domain of the company.
The other option is having the account deleted. In order to do this, a verified family member or personal representative must petition the company with the appropriate documentation. Once approved, the account and its contents are deleted forever.
Obviously, there are pros and cons to both options. As Facebook has become social networking’s community hub, allowing the account to exist, at least for a time, is a compassionate and logical choice.
Typically, the decedent’s Facebook wall becomes a gathering point for friends, colleagues, and even family to share memories and photographs of their departed friend. But ultimately, it may be wise to take that action eventually, if for no other reason than to protect the personal information stored in the Cloud.
Ultimately, the time has come to begin counseling customers on pre-planning for the management and inheritance of their digital assets. This includes planning for what will happen to their Facebook and other social media accounts, as part of their service arrangements. These plans should include, at the very least, a list of accounts, passwords, and the wishes of the departed.
We encourage you to familiarize yourself with Facebook’s memorialization policies, as well as learn more about dealing with other digital or online assets like videos, documents and more. By doing so, you will remain relevant in the industry and sensitive to your customer’s needs as they plan for what lies ahead. One place to learn more is at Your Digital Afterlife.