What happens to your social media account when you die?
Whether we like it or not, more and more of the interactions and exchanges we have with family, friends and colleagues take place via social media. Many of us have social media accounts with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn and over time, as we upload, post, Tweet, share, like and comment, we accumulate a large amount of digital information within those accounts, and we leave behind a unique ‘digital footprint’ – a record of our online activity.
So what happens to those accounts, and the information contained within them (our ‘footprint’), when we die?
A long-running German court case on this topic, involving the parents of a 15-year-old girl killed by a train in 2012, reached the Federal Supreme Court for the second time in late summer 2020. The case concerned the question of whether a social media account, and all the communication content contained within it, can pass to the user’s heirs and how access to the account has to be granted.
The Court decided that the user contract between the plaintiff’s daughter and Facebook was part of the estate and would pass to the heirs by way of universal succession; its inheritability was not excluded by contractual provisions. Facebook was obliged to grant full access to the daughter’s account in the same way as the daughter had previously been granted access. Although this case took place outside of this jurisdiction, it shines a light on the importance of our digital footprint and planning for what happens to this after our death.
It should be noted, however, that each social media platform has slightly different rules and policies. What each platform does with the accounts when its users pass away varies and often depends on the wishes of the user and/or their immediate family. You may have particular wishes in respect of your digital assets; you may want some information to be erased and some retained, certain accounts shut down, and others memorialised. It is important to think about your own wishes, familiarise yourself with each platform’s policies and then take the appropriate steps, which includes providing instructions to your loved ones.
As a result of the case mentioned above, Facebook changed its terms and conditions and now allows you to appoint a ‘legacy contact’, such as a family member or friend, who will be able to look after your memorialised account or choose to have your account permanently deleted. Facebook will memorialise a user’s account if they discover or are informed that the user has died. Accounts that don’t have a legacy contact cannot be managed or changed after they have been memorialised.
A memorialised Facebook account will show the word ‘Remembering’ in front of the user’s name on the profile and, depending on the privacy settings, can allow friends to share memories and tributes on the memorialised timeline.
A legacy contact can accept friend requests on behalf of a memorialised account, pin a tribute post to the profile and change the profile picture and cover photo. If the memorialised account has an area for tributes, a legacy contact will be able to decide who can see and post tributes. A legacy contact cannot log in to the account to view any private messages or remove past posts, photos, or friends.
You can also choose to have your account permanently deleted in the event of your death. This means that when someone informs Facebook that you have passed away, all of your messages, photos, posts, comments, reactions and information will be immediately and permanently removed.
Instagram does not have the legacy contact feature but, like Facebook, accounts can either be memorialised or removed upon request by an immediate family member or personal representative i.e. an executor.
A deceased Twitter user’s immediate family member or personal representative can ask for the account to be deactivated.
Twitter’s Terms of Service state that you cannot transfer your account to another person (because it’s a non-assignable license) so will not provide account access to anyone regardless of their relationship to the deceased.
If you do not make a plan for your Twitter account, your account will be automatically deleted after 6 months of inactivity. If you want to control what happens to your account, you would either need to plan for it to be deleted, or leave instructions with someone about what to do with the account in the event of your passing.
LinkedIn also allows immediate family members or the personal representatives of a deceased user to request to memorialise or close the account.
A memorialised LinkedIn account will display a memorialised badge as a symbol of remembrance. Access to the account is locked; it is against LinkedIn’s policy to allow others to sign in to another member’s account.
If you are thinking of asking someone to access your account after your death, keep in mind that sharing your password is a violation of LinkedIn’s User Agreement and is grounds for deleting your account. It should be remembered that sharing any passwords or log in details during your lifetime is potentially very risky.
Many of us associate ‘estate planning’ with our other assets such as bank accounts or properties, but digital estate planning is an important, often overlooked aspect. It can be valuable and extremely helpful for the family and friends that you leave behind to be provided with instructions for your accounts, digital assets and social media profiles.
Even if you are in good health, it is sensible to plan ahead, for the peace of mind of knowing that your loved ones will have one less thing to worry about and manage at an already stressful and upsetting time.
It is important to familiarise yourself with all the user agreements for your digital accounts to ensure that your assets and data are protected even after you have passed away.
Our experienced Private Client team are experts in all aspects of estate planning. Contact Freeths to find out how we can help you.
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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