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Logging Out of Your Digital Estate Plan

By August 7, 2013No Comments
Hand with Social Media Icons

Image: Mr. Lightman –

By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the wisdom of incorporating a “digital asset plan” in your estate plan. If you haven’t, feel free to visit my introductory article on the topic. However, if you are familiar with the concept, then this article will shed more light on the subject. Below you’ll find what can happen to a loved one’s digital account (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) when he or she passes away.

Facebook has a “family-and-friend-friendly” policy. Surviving loved ones have 2 choices: memorialize the account or have it deleted. If a Facebook account is memorialized, which can be requested by anyone, then the account is somewhat frozen. Confirmed friends can post to the account and view it on their news feeds, but no one can access or change the account.

Proven immediate family members or the executor are the only persons who can request the account’s deletion and must provide proof of the relationship through certified vital records or court documents.

Ironically, LinkedIn, a professional social media network, has a somewhat more relaxed approach than Facebook. If LinkedIn is notified that a person has died, LinkedIn will close the account and remove the profile. Notification must provide, the member’s name, company where the member worked at most recently, the relationship between the person notifying LinkedIn and the member, a link to the member’s profile, and the member’s email address. Odd is the fact that LinkedIn doesn’t require proof of a relationship or death certificate. It seems that an unresponsive email is sufficient evidence. But to the poor individual who is only on vacation and friends decided to pull a prank, it might not be so sufficient. Hmmm….

Despite its brevity and awesomeness, Twitter is even more strict than Facebook. The only request observed is one to delete the account. If a loved one’s account is to be deleted, Twitter requires the following information from an immediate family member or executor: username and of the deceased user’s Twitter account, copy of the deceased’s death certificate, copy of the family member or executor’s government-issued identification, AND a signed statement providing the requester’s first and last name, email address, current contact information, relationship to the deceased or their estate, action requested, and brief description detailing how this account belongs to the deceased. Twitter denies access to everyone, regardless of relationship or fiduciary capacity; there is no tweeting after death.

It looks like Instagram does its own investigation into a decedent’s death. The platform simply asks requesters to email its staff about deceased users and then the folks at Instagram will let the requester know if any further information is available. Does anyone besides me thinks this is a little creepy?

This is Google, so while access may be granted, a process will be required. First, the requester must provide Google with his or her full name, physical mailing address, email address, photocopy of a government-issued ID, the Gmail address of the deceased, and the death certificate of the deceased. Now, going through step 1 doesn’t guarantee access to the deceased’s email. Google may require the requester to take a second step 2: providing a court order or other materials.

Hotmail considers you dead if your account is inactive for 12 months. It will delete contents after 9 months of inactivity and delete the account after 12 months of inactivity. Plus, it’s unlikely that if you’re alive and want your contents back, that you’ll be able to retrieve them.

Hotmail is a Microsoft platform, so it follows Microsoft’s “next of kin” process. To prove that you are the legal next of kin and that the account holder is deceased – or incapacitated – Microsoft requires: an official death certificate of the user; if the user is incapacitated, a certified document signed by a medical professional in charge of caring for the user (oops! HIPAA violation warning for doctors) or a signed court document providing that the requester is an agent with power of attorney or a conservator. Documents for decedents from a court must show that the requester is a trustee or an executor. And still further proof is needed to prove kinship: marriage certificate showing requester is surviving spouse (Query: What if spouse divorced and hates surviving family members?); signed power of attorney documents; copy of a will or trust (read privacy issues); a birth certificate for the user showing parentage of the requester; or guardianship documents; and a photocopy of the requester’s government-issued identification.

Once all information is provided, the requester still does not gain access to the account but will instead receive a DVD of all the account’s contents, including emails, attachments, address book, and Messenger contact list. The requester can ask for the account then to be closed.

Lesson: Logging on to the digital world may be easy but permanently logging out isn’t.

Hat tip: My intern, Lesley Gwam.

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