Chances are, if you’re thinking about estate planning, you’re thinking about how you want your physical possessions and finances to be distributed. The last thing that you might be thinking about is what to do with your Facebook account. If you’re on Facebook or on any other online platform, though, you should consider what to do with these accounts if you die or become incapacitated, as you would for any physical possession.
A complex dilemma that faces each of us
In June 2012, it was estimated that 580,000 Facebook users in the United States and 2.89 million around the world will pass away by the end of that year. It’s a sobering statistic that boils down to this: A lot of people who have Facebook accounts aren’t alive anymore. In fact, according to a recent article in Read Write Web, there are 30 million accounts on Facebook on Facebook for people who have died.
So what does Facebook do with those accounts? And what would you want done with your account on Facebook (or Twitter, Pinterest, Flicker, Gmail, YouTube, or any other online platform) if you pass away? Do you want to leave your account available, so that friends, family, members can share their memories of you, or does that strike you as awkward and creepy? There’s no one right answer that everyone should follow, of course–just the answer that’s right for you.
Cases in the news
A number of well-publicized cases illustrate the negative consequences of not planning what to do with online accounts in the event of an untimely death. Take the case of Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth, who was killed at the age of 20 in 2004 by a roadside bomb while deployed in Iraq. His father John Ellsworth wanted to create a memorial to his dead son and requested that Yahoo release the e-mails that his son had written while he was on duty. After a legal battle, the following year, a probate court ordered Yahoo to provide the contents of his son’s email account to Ellsworth (see Yahoo releases email of deceased Marine).
The case highlighted the tensions between an ISP’s terms of service, which are designed to protect privacy, and the needs and interests of a grieving family. Other cases have arisen that involve families who want access to the accounts of children who commit suicide or who pass away due to illness.
Why we should care
Digital estate planning can help prevent, or at least mitigate, the painful consequences of situations such as those encountered by the Ellsworth family. Without digital estate planning, your survivors will have to guess at what your wishes might have been. Well-meaning family members, if they have the technical capabilities, may circumvent terms of service and your privacy to access the contents of your digital accounts. Information that you may not have intended others to see may be brought to light. Alternately, valuable online information that you would have wished your survivors to access may not be accessible and ultimately deleted.
In addition, proper digital estate planning can help prevent your identity from being stolen after you die or become incapacitated. As Gerry Beyer and Kerri Griffin note in their paper, Estate Planning for Digital Assets, “Until authorities update their databases regarding a new death, criminals can open credit cards, apply for jobs under a dead person’s name, and get state identification cards.”
How this site can help
This site is designed to provide an overview of the digital estate planning process, an introduction to basic terminology, and the current status of related legislation.
If you spend any time online and you care what happens with your digital presence after you pass away, this site is for you.