Your Digital Inheritance: What Happens to Your Social Media Accounts When You Die?

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By Michael Osakwe,

As morbid a topic as death is, preparing for it is important for both your family’s financial health as well as your personal legacy. While Facebook or Twitter are likely the last things on your mind if you’re terminally ill or seriously injured, these online accounts have far reaching implications that will last even after you’re gone. Given how much we share online, these accounts could be invaluable to friends and family, as their continued existence allows them to stay close to us after we’ve died through the various photos, videos or thoughts we’ve shared. But while online accounts have sentimental meaning to some, they are likely to be valuable to hackers, fraudsters and trolls who’d like to assume your identity, sell your information or use your account as a means to launch attacks on other Internet users, like your online friends. Because of this, many experts now see online accounts as a part of our “digital inheritance,” an intangible, but important, aspect of our estate that we ought to include in our wills. The consequences of ignoring our online accounts in our wills might lead to difficulties down the line, as it makes the accounts vulnerable to exploitation, which is why we’re detailing your options with regards to the process of building and securing your digital inheritance.

What to know before managing your digital inheritance

One of the most important things to be aware of before beginning to plan the distribution of your digital inheritance is the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (FADA), which guarantees individuals the right to transfer digital possessions legally. FADA and its enhanced variations (UFADA, RUFADA, RFADA) are laws proposed by the Uniform Law Commission, a non-partisan entity that aims to create legislative uniformity across state lines. While FADA hasn’t been passed or even considered in every state, at least 20 states have passed or are considering one of the revised versions of the law, with more expected to follow.

FADA is important because from a technical standpoint, online accounts and their content can’t be currently shared if the user dies, as it usually violates the terms of service for most sites. Over the years, individuals have had to fight for the right to have access to their deceased loved ones’ online accounts. For example, when U.S. Marine Justin Ellsworth died in 2004, his parents took Yahoo! Inc. to court over the right to have access to his email. The parents of U.S. Marine Corps reservist Karl Linn also found themselves in a similar situation with Mailbank around the same time.

With technology becoming more ingrained in our lives, our digital identity is getting more and more important after death. As such, it’s expected that more states will consider laws like FADA, and at the same time, companies will likely push back against FADA or similar laws. Until this debate is settled, though, we as users will have to take things into our own hands by properly planning for our eventual demise.

How should you prepare your digital inheritance?

Planning what you share with family as part of your digital identity, such as usernames and passwords, is a personal decision that relates to the legacy you want to preserve. That said, you might want to include any “need to know” details regarding online financial services and other types of sensitive accounts with implications for your family. The best way to decide what should and shouldn’t be included on your digital inheritance is to make a list of important files on your computer as well as a list of all of the online services you use. From there, you can narrow it down to important services and accounts that you think should be part of your digital legacy and protected from hackers. Remember, anything you’ve ever used or purchased online might not be valuable or worth preserving, but they should also be listed on your will and noted that you’d either like the membership to be deleted or made private after your death (or you can make things easy and delete these services now). Something to note is that you should avoid sharing passwords explicitly on your will, as wills are a matter of public record.

To help you prepare for the unknown, a small number of social media services allow you to either preemptively designate an appointee to manage your account when you die, or specify whatever else you might want to happen to your account upon your death. Others allow family to manage the account even if you didn’t preauthorize them, but only given they can prove their identity and provide proof your death, such as a death certificate. In addition to any options particular sites provide, there are third-party services that help transfer your digital assets to your beneficiaries after you die.

What options do social media services provide for managing a deceased user’s data?

A number of services spell out in their terms of service what someone’s death means for their account, below we look at the options some popular social networking sites provide users.

  • Facebook allows users to set up in advance what they want to do with their account. Users can either choose to memorialize the account or have it permanently deleted. Memorializing the account allows someone to share one last post from the account — in case they want to share funeral plans or post a tribute — change your profile picture and cover photo as well as respond to new friend requests. Any posts shared before the account was memorialized cannot be edited or removed. Facebook’s help center details everything about how these options work.
  • Twitter cooperates with an authorized point of contact to work on deactivating an account after the user dies. However, citing its terms of service, Twitter will not allow someone to have account access to post anything or make any changes to the account.
  • LinkedIn has a similar policy to Twitter, in that deceased users’ accounts will be closed out when requested by a friend or family member as long as they can provide the appropriate paperwork to prove the person is deceased.
  • Google accounts (Google+, Gmail, YouTube and Google search history), like Facebook, provide an option that allows users to make arrangements regarding their intentions for their account after death. The first option is to set up an inactive account feature that essentially acts as a dead man’s switch. The moment Google detects an absence of activity from the user, the arrangements will go into effect, be it having the account deleted or sharing the user’s information with designated individuals. If a user doesn’t set up this feature, their loved ones can contact Google to close out the account or request data; however, it’s up to Google’s discretion to hand over data. As such, it’s probably better to just set up the automatic, inactive account feature because it’ll make things easier for your family or friends.
  • Yahoo! only officially allows verified friends or family to close out the user’s account upon death. Despite the ruling of the Justin Ellsworth court case that required Yahoo! to pass over the information and the passing of FADA in several states, someone cannot request data from Yahoo! or access the deceased person’s account.
  • Pinterest, like Twitter, LinkedIn and Yahoo accounts, can only be closed out upon request by verified friends or family.
  • Instagram, similar to Facebook, allows friends and family to either request the account of a deceased user be memorialized or deleted, as explained here.
  • Microsoft email accounts (Hotmail, Live, MSN or Outlook) allow users to submit what is called a Next of Kin request. This request allows users to choose what happens to the account if they die — either close it out or keep it active. Unlike Facebook, family and friends won’t get access to the account, but Microsoft will send them a DVD with the account’s data. Other Microsoft accounts like OneDrive or Skype don’t yet have a formal policy (or one that’s publicly posted) around the issue of deceased users.
  • Computers, laptops and smartphones will have their own policies that vary between brands. If you want your family to have access or control over your physical devices after you die, you’re better off giving the passwords to your loved ones directly or making sure your devices are backed up through an online backup account that they have access to. As we saw with the Apple vs. FBI showdown last year, even if they have the means of granting access to devices, most companies aren’t willing to do so. That said, some brands, like Apple, will allow loved ones to factory reset devices so that they can use them after the owner dies, but they will not help someone retrieve the device’s data.

What other options do you have for sharing your digital inheritance?

Managing every individual account you own can be overwhelming, which is why there are a growing number of third-party applications dedicated to helping individuals with this issue — even a password manager can act as a vault to your digital inheritance if your spouse or trusted family member has access to it. Traditional legal services can also help you begin considering your plans for your digital assets if you need some help planning. While some online services and websites allow you to plan for your digital assets after death, as detailed above, taking steps now to monitor and protect your digital identity can make things easier for your family and friends when you do pass away.

Keep reading our technology blog to learn more about emerging cybersecurity and privacy issues.

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