What Happens to Your Online Accounts When You Die?

Updated on December 9, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

The internet and social networking are key to the way I connect with others. I cannot imagine life without them.

Your Digital Afterlife

The internet is part of our everyday life. Social media keeps friends and family in touch. It is inconvenient for business and devastating for personal relationships when those connections are interrupted or cease altogether.

You share your daily experiences with your network, until one day someone (you) disappears from the conversation. Who tells digital friends you have died? Personal accounts on sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, and Google may contain photos, videos and sentimental notes about your life. Are these things you want to remain visible in perpetuity?

I recommend Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy? It provides detailed information about the issues you need to consider to protect your online legacy. It can help you make the emotional decision about what happens to your digital estate when you die.

Plan ahead to ensure your digital afterlife is angelic and not diabolical.
Plan ahead to ensure your digital afterlife is angelic and not diabolical. | Source

How to Set Up Your Digital Legacy

Make a spreadsheet showing what you would like to happen to each online account.

  • Who do you want to be the custodian of your digital legacy including social media?
  • Do you want them to curate the account? Or delete it?
  • Find out how each of your platforms deals with death.
  • Download social media will template from the Digital Legacy Association website.
  • Tell your next of kin your passwords or keep them on a password manager.

How prepared are you for a digital afterlife?

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Your Online Estate Can Survive Your Death

Dying is still a taboo subject, but death is something that will happen to each one of us. Writing a will can make your passing less stressful for surviving relatives and friends. Plan what you would like to happen to your estate and remember to include not only physical property but also digital assets.

Your online legacy includes anything you have posted and not deleted before your death. Social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat as well as financial accounts such as banking or gambling websites are all affected when you die. Words and money left in any of these digital places are in limbo on your passing unless you have left legally enforceable instructions.

Preserve Your Internet Self For Your Heirs

Digital companies each have slightly different rules about what happens when you die. The prospect of dying may present three options. You could delete all your online content before you pass away. Or the account can be “memorialized” and a nominated curator can add a header note announcing your death, but they would be unable to alter existing posts. The final option is for the internet company to delete everything in your account when you die.

It is important that you plan ahead and make a will. As well as thinking about physical and financial assets, include your digital legacy. Talk to your family about your online presence. They may have a view about maintaining or deleting it. With forethought, your great-great-great grandchildren may be able to hear your voice and see your fashion sense many years in the future.

Protecting Your Digital Afterlife

Is There an Afterlife on Social Media?

Our everyday lives are mapped online through social media, blogs and emails. It’s worth taking a moment to think about what happens to this record when you die. You need to take control of your digital legacy before the internet memorializes you into someone unrecognizable.

Is your legacy to the world the disagreement you had with your sister 20 years ago? Did you “friend” people who are now your enemies? Do you want every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Thomasina, Daisy and Hattie) to know you were scared of flying? A few simple steps now can help take care of your digital legacy and allow you to leave the record you choose.

Memories of a Beloved Son and Friend

Does Your Online Legacy Provide Comfort or Cause Distress?

The video above is of a grieving mother remembering her son who committed suicide. He planned his own death, and chose to leave his videos and photos online. The legacy account has brought some comfort to friends and family by connecting them with positive memories of the deceased.

Facebook allows you to add a Legacy Contact to look after your account if you die. However, once you have passed away, this person can make only minor changes. The account is “memorialized” and effectively locked by Facebook. A Legacy Contact cannot remove or alter individual posts. Facebook argues they are protecting the privacy of the individual. Google and other online websites use the same argument. The terms of service (TOS) agreed by an account holder in life remain in force when they are dead. This policy can cause distress where death is sudden and unplanned.

In 2014 Hollie Gazzard was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Asher Maslin in Gloucester, UK. She was just 20 years old. Her Facebook account contained several pictures of her and her killer from happier times. Her family found these upsetting and asked Facebook to remove them. The internet giant refused citing client privacy and TOS. It was only after threatening legal action under copyright law that Facebook finally took down the photos more than a year later.

After you die future generations can view your photos and messages online.
After you die future generations can view your photos and messages online. | Source

Are You a Digital Native or a Digital Immigrant?

Anyone born after 1985 is a digital native. You have grown up with the internet. Using it is as much a part of your life as breathing. You connect with the world online and your digital life is a record of your highs and lows. You share experiences with friends and are part of a global social network.

If you were born before 1985 you are a digital immigrant. You started using the internet later in life. Some of you are enthusiastic adopters, while others keep the world-wide-web at arm’s length. Death can occur suddenly and be unexpected. It could be due to an accident, illness, suicide or even murder. None of us know what the future holds, so whatever your age, you need to think about your online legacy.

Legal Considerations for Your Digital Legacy

We Need to Talk About Death and Dying

The rules about what happens to your digital estate after death are relatively new. Most online account TOS relating to afterlife curation have not been tested in the courts. The clearer your make your wishes, the better the chance your heirs will be able to implement them. All of us need to have a conversation about death and internet afterlife with our family and friends.

There is a conflict between existing contract and privacy laws versus inheritance and copyright laws. The issues around who controls afterlife accounts is becoming a key battleground between relatives and social media companies.

Each social media website works in a slightly different way. To help your heirs and executors you could take screenshots of all the steps needed to carry out your wishes. This will increase their confidence and minimize delay in informing your online friends of your demise.

Further Information

The Digital Legacy Association has useful downloads including “Digital Legacy Factsheet” and “Social Media Will" template.

The role of a Facebook Legacy Contact.

The case of Hollie Gazzard’s family versus Facebook is reported by the BBC.

The Digital Entropy Of Death by Chris Boyd


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