Does Your Facebook Accounts Die When You Do? -- Estate Planning for Your Digital Assets

Marilyn Brohm |

Do you know what happens to your Facebook postings when you die? Does your spouse or family have access to your account when you pass away?

We all know we are going to die someday, but what happens to our digital accounts after we’re gone?

Facebook and other internet services walk a difficult tightrope between respecting the privacy of the deceased and the interests of the surviving family members. In February 2015, Facebook introduced a feature that lets you designate someone as a legacy contact before you die. Previously, Facebook automatically froze the accounts of members it learned had died. This angered some heirs who wanted access to photo, videos, and the chance to edit the deceased’s online presence.

If you want to establish a Facebook “legacy contact”, open Facebook Settings, choose Security, and then select Legacy Contact at the bottom of the page. Here you must select a Facebook friend as the “legacy contact”. You’ll have the option to have a message sent to this person at this time or when you die.

Legacy contacts can manage accounts in a way that can turn the deceased person’s Facebook page into a memorialized profile page. The legacy contact could also write a post with details of the death of the deceased person. They could also change the friend’s profile picture, and even respond to new friend requests on behalf of the deceased.

If granted prior permission, legacy contacts can also download an archive of posts and photos from the deceased. The legacy contact cannot download the contents of his or her private messages or decide to delete the entire account. 

Would you rather have your Facebook account deleted and gone forever at your death? This is an option that you can choose instead of appointing a legacy contact. Facebook members can change their legacy contact selection at any time, but once they’ve died, a legacy contact cannot pass along the responsibility to someone else.

What happens to your Facebook account if you do not choose a legacy contact? When Facebook finds out you’ve passed, your account will be frozen and leave posts and pictures at the privacy settings you determined, a process it calls memorial ization. If you name a digital heir in a legal will, Facebook will designate that person as the legacy contact.

Google also has their version of digital afterlife management. Google accounts such as Google Mail, Drive, Contacts and Blogger can be assigned an Inactive Account Manager, or IAM. The IAM gets access to your data after you die, but can’t edit that content or act as if the account is his or her own account. If you would rather just delete all of your Google account data after a certain time period rather than name an IAM, you can do that, too. Select a time frame of inactivity (three, six, nine, or 12 months) after which the account will be permanently deleted.

Twitter has not offered a digital death solution. At your death, no one else can access your Twitter account acting as if he or she is you. If you die, friends or family can ask Twitter to remove your account. Twitter will require verifications from the requester, but it can be accomplished.

Facebook has stated that they might change certain parts of the legacy contact agreement. I suggest you contact the customer service departments of all your digital accounts to understand what is best for your accounts and your legacy wishes.

Estate planning for the Twenty-First Century must include your digital legacy. Your loved ones will want to preserve some of your memories, including photos, videos and messages that are locked in the privacy of your digital accounts. If you plan ahead, your family and friends can enjoy your legacy with little or no burden when dealing with the likes of Facebook and Google.