Planning for the digital afterlife: What happens to social media accounts after the account holder dies?

For many individuals, social media accounts can hold some the most personally valuable intellectual property that the person owns. Photos, videos, written content, online personas (i.e., personal “brands”) — all of these reside in cloud-based servers that are, by design, password-protected and accessible only to the account holder.

When a person dies, the person’s heirs may want to take control of their loved one’s social media accounts to post memorials, information about funeral arrangements and other notices. This activity may or may not be consistent with what the account holder intended to  occur after death. If the person’s will contains detailed instructions and passwords, then the heirs will have a clear direction. However, this is not often the case.

Google recently announced a new feature that will help account holders plan for how they would like to leave their digital footprints after they die. Will this feature prompt other social media sites to follow suit?  Several of the most popular sites’ post-mortem options are:

  • Google:  Launched in April 2013, the Google Inactive Account Manager service allows you to control what happens to your Google+, GMail, Picasa and other Google accounts if they are inactive after a period of time. The account holder selects the time period and specifies what happens — such as delete the account, send data to a trusted friend, etc. The account holder can even choose different settings for different Google services.
  • Facebook:  At the time of this writing, Facebook does not have an automatic service that allows an account holder to direct what happens after death. Instead, a Facebook account remains active until deleted.  Alternatively, a deceased account holder’s heirs can request that the person’s profile be converted to a memorial profile.
  •  Twitter:  Like Facebook, Twitter has no automated function for advance planning. However, it does have specific procedures for deactivating Twitter accounts after the account holder passes away.
  • LinkedIn:  LinkedIn provides a verification of death form that can be used to ask the service to delete the account of a departed LinkedIn member.

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