The emergence of the Internet, and social media websites in particular, as indispensable communication tools has raised the question of what happens to our electronic information and data when we die.
Who will have access to our emails, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, Twitter and other password protected accounts?
Will the many memories of our lives memorialised in digital photographs, texts and contacts be retained and accessible to our loved ones and generations to come?
In this age of digital technology, a properly crafted 'social media will', leaving detailed instructions on how to handle your electronic information, should be considered.
You should ensure that the executors of your will are chosen with care and have the right to handle your online identity, including closing or maintaining your email accounts, social media profiles and blogs after your death.
Should you wish to retain certain online profiles for friends and family to visit, this should be communicated to your executors via your will or by a separate letter or addendum to your will.
When popular film critic Roger Ebert died in April, he left behind more than 800,000 Twitter followers, 100,000 Facebook fans and an active film critics' website. Shortly before he died, he gave his wife the "keys" to his digital identity and requested that she maintain his Twitter account. His website also continues under a staff of writers and editors.
Some sites, such as Facebook, allow users to create a visible memorial profile. Other sites have account management features to let you proactively manage what happens to your accounts after you die. Google's Inactive Account Manager tool, for example, allows you to permit family or close friends, access to your content saved on Google websites following your death.
Care should be taken when compiling details of all the websites where you have a profile, along with usernames and passwords. Instructions for accessing online banking accounts and password protected devices such as computers, security systems and cell phones could also be included.
However, sensitive information should not be included in your will as, if it is probated, your will becomes a public document. That is why it is advisable to prepare a separate document or letter of wishes that is kept current and stored with your will in a secure place, such as an attorney's safe, for your executors to access after your death.
Another option is to use one of the many digital legacy preservation services established by web entrepreneurs such as LegacyLocker, DSwiss AG, Entrustet, Vital Lock, Lastpass and Datainherit, which enable users to store passwords on a secure cloud server.
It is important to review privacy policies and terms and conditions of each website where you have a presence. Unfortunately, there seems to be no uniformity in policies among major Internet and social media companies when it comes to deceased's accounts.
Some companies do not consider it a violation for the surviving family, with a court order or authority from the deceased, to use his/her password to log into the account (Microsoft). Some will provide data from accounts after death if the user provides consent and account information in his estate plan (Yahoo). But others will not disclose account data without a court order (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn).
Other companies will deactivate or remove an account from public view at the request of the deceased's family or executors (Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Tumblr) or at the request of others (LinkedIn). Some will require the production of a death certificate before deactivating an account (Yahoo, Twitter) and a few require the production of a court order (Google).
Most will not disclose passwords or transfer ownership of an account (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Microsoft: Hotmail/outlook.com).
It is important that you establish a will, ideally with the assistance of a suitably qualified estate advisor, in order that your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets, the appointment of a guardian for any minor children, and your burial wishes – among other things – are realised.
As we are in the digital age, it is also prudent to make arrangements for your digital information to be properly handled after death, ensuring that the appropriate people will have access to the right information at the right time.
Article first published in the Royal Gazette, September 2013
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.