What Happens to Your Facebook if You Die?

This blog was written and posted online for client Nagle Law Group. Resulting story pitch and media pickup generated multiple TV segments across the country.

Including your “digital assets” in estate planning is vital in today’s social media age.

A recent study shows that more than half of Americans are on Facebook – chances are that includes you or somebody in your family. It is estimated that some 375,000 U.S. Facebook users will pass away this year; a number that will continue to rise as total membership continues to grow. Have you ever thought about what happens to your Facebook profile if something happens to you? Estate planning attorneys are now including instructions for Facebook and Twitter (and other digital assets) in estate plans. For example, when you pass away a family member must notify Facebook to either remove the profile or leave it up so people can memorialize you on your ‘wall’ (Facebook has created this form for loved ones to notify them of a user’s death https://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=deceased).

But beyond Facebook, it is important to include digital assets in your estate plans to prevent identity thieves from using your personal information after your death. Unfortunately, Arizona is one of the leading states for identity theft.  

Suggestions from Nagle Law Group’s estate planning attorneys:

Designate the person responsible for managing your digital identity in your Will and let them know what your wishes are if something happens to you. This person may or may not be the personal representative designated in the Will. If it is not, the Will should specifically provide that another person has such authority and you might consider granting a limited power of attorney. In any event, the Will should address these types of items because the law has not caught up with technology in terms of predetermined rules. Digital information is not clear in terms of what type of asset (financial, intangible, etc.) or if it even is an asset that would be recognized under the laws of intestacy. Therefore, without addressing these issues in the Will and possibly with an additional written set of directions outside of the Will, these accounts may languish and a personal representative may struggle getting cooperation from the company maintaining the account.

Make some kind of file, whether it’s on a Flash drive, or in an actual physical notebook, with logins / passwords, accounts, etc. Keep it updated and stored securely, and make sure somebody (spouse/partner, loved one, sibling, etc.) knows where you keep it. There are some password storage applications you can use to keep all passwords in one secure place; this is also important so that people don’t steal your identity after your death. A person may want to differentiate between different types of accounts and who is responsible. For example, you may designate one person with authority to contact Facebook, to view personal email to notify friends and colleagues of your passing, and still have yet another person acting as the personal representative administering online financial accounts. Note that it is critically important to provide a list of all accounts (such as a Scottrade or TD Ameritrade account) to the personal representative since a person may own stocks or other financial assets and all communications are online (such as monthly statements); without a list and/or email access, the personal representative might never know about them.

Make sure to include your email password(s) in your file so that your designated person can access your email and turn off accounts. Regularly “clean out” your email rather than storing unimportant messages indefinitely; there is no need to keep 10 years worth of email messages. Create folders for email messages that are important and organize your email account with those.

Make some provision in the Will for disposition of digital assets such as photos. Unlike traditional photo albums, digital photos may be provided to more than one person, so designate all the appropriate recipients. If you decide you want your Facebook profile to remain as a memorial, designate what photo you want used. This might sound morbid, but what if something happened to you and the last profile photo you used was something silly or “just for fun?” Designate which profile photo you prefer to be used.

Blogs and personal websites. If the person maintains a blog, a trusted person should be authorized to not only close down the blog, but also process and/or maintain the intellectual property of the blog. For example, there might be copyrightable material that should be used or maintained in a particular manner for the benefit of the estate.

Planning for the future of your loved ones has become especially important given our current economic climate. Establishing a clear plan for the distribution of your assets (including your digital assets, like Facebook) and planning for your care in the event that you become incapacitated, protects your property, your health and your family members.