In our 2013 article “Dealing with Digital Assets in an Estate”, we discussed the importance of identifying, cataloguing, and planning for your digital assets, an often overlooked aspect of estate planning. In broad terms, “digital assets” include all of the electronic possessions an individual may have. A recent survey conducted by McAfee revealed that the average Canadian values his or her digital assets at more than $32,000! Such digital assets include music downloads, e-books, text messages, videos, emails and social media accounts, such as Facebook. The latter is the focus of this article.
Over the last decade, Facebook has become massively popular with users of all ages. Approximately 19 million Canadians, more than half of the population, have an active Facebook account. Users use the site as a platform for sharing numerous photographs, personal messages, and other personal information with their social network. A Facebook account often reveals intimate details of the account holder’s identity. But what happens with all this personal information after the user’s death? Until recently, Facebook offered to either delete or “memorialize” the user’s account upon request from the personal representative or a family member. Memorialized accounts can be viewed by friends, but cannot be managed or altered in any way. Recent changes to Facebook’s account management policy now give users a way to control their profiles after death by appointing a “legacy contact”.
Once Facebook is notified of the account holder’s death, the legacy contact can:
- download a copy of all personal data shared on Facebook (including photographs, videos, wall posts, and profile information);
- write on the Facebook profile to share a remembrance or final message on behalf of the deceased user;
- respond to new friend requests on behalf of the deceased user; and
- update the deceased user’s profile picture and cover photograph.
To protect the privacy of the decedent, Facebook does not allow the legacy contact to:
- log in as the deceased user;
- change what is already posted on the profile (for example, the legacy contact cannot delete photographs or profile updates);
- read or download private messages; or
- delete the account.
Designating a legacy contact is optional, and if a person passes away and no legacy contact is chosen, Facebook will continue with their current memorialization process. Alternatively, Facebook also gives users the option of requesting that their account be permanently deleted after their death. Facebook’s “legacy contact” feature is currently only available in the U.S., however, it is expected to soon be made available in Canada.
Other tech companies offer similar posthumous account management options. For example, in 2013, Google introduced “Inactive Account Manager”, a service that lets users decide what will happen to their Gmail messages and data from other Google services after a certain period of inactivity.
As most Canadians today have a digital presence, estate planning for digital assets is critical to preserving the privacy and personal history of a decedent. Facebook’s “legacy contact” feature, and other services like it, provides users with a meaningful way of controlling personal data after death. However, such services are only useful to the extent that users take advantage of them. It is important to consider digital asset management as part of your overall estate planning strategy to ensure that no part of your legacy is forgotten.