Have you ever wondered what happens to your online accounts after your death?
Who can access to your online accounts after your death? Who gets to keep all the contents? Will your accounts be closed after a certain period of time?
It is understandable that not many of us like thinking about death, especially our own.
It is often a topic that people tend to shun away from, or they may think that while that day will come eventually, it may not be so soon, so why worry about it now? This is not quite true. Making plans for what happens after we have gone is important for the people we leave behind. That is why people make a will. It is never too soon to plan who can access your online accounts after your death.
There is currently no law that regulates what happens to a person’s online existence after his death. It is entirely governed by the respective websites’ terms of service. Let’s take a look at the various service providers on how they handle online accounts after your death
Gmail (and also Google +, YouTube, etc)
Google launched the Inactive Account Manager in 2013.
Basically, it is a service where users can instruct Google what to do with their Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if their account becomes inactive for whatever reason, including death.
For example, users can choose to have their data automatically deleted after a period of inactivity (between 3 to 18 months), or they can select trusted contacts to download their data after a period of inactivity.
According to Yahoo’s No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability clause, a user’s Yahoo account is non-transferable and any rights to his Yahoo ID or contents within his Yahoo account terminate upon his death.
Yahoo will terminate and permanently delete the user’s Yahoo account upon receipt of a death certificate. Click here to read more.
The Microsoft’s Next of Kin process allows for the release of Outlook.com contents, including all emails and their attachments, address book, and Messenger contact list, to the next of kin of a deceased or incapacitated account holder and/or closure of the Microsoft account, following a short authentication process.
All contents will be downloaded onto a data DVD and then shipped to the next of kin. Microsoft will not release the deceased’s password or change the password.
There have been several cases where an individual was trying to gain access to his loved one’s Facebook account after the passing of the loved one. Facebook’s terms of service make it very clear that accessing an account that belongs to someone else amounts to a breach of the terms, which would enable Facebook to cut access to it.
Like many other websites, Facebook will not disclose the deceased’s password even if such a request comes from family members of the deceased. In response to this, Facebook has provided several options:
- Family members can request Facebook to remove their loved one’s account from Facebook provided such request is accompanied with either a death certificate, court document confirming power of attorney, birth certificate or last will and testament.
- Family members and friends can request Facebook to memorialize their loved one’s account. The profile page will be turned into a memorial page for friends and family members to gather and share memories after a person has passed away. Some of the key features are such as the word “Remembering” will be shown next to the deceased’s name on his profile page, content the deceased previously shared will still be visible and that the memorialized profile will not appear in public spaces such as in suggestions for People You May Know, ads or birthday reminders so as not to upset the family members and friends.
Facebook allows users to appoint a legacy contact i.e. someone that the user chooses to look after and manage his account if it is memorialized. Of course, the legacy contact will not be able to take full control of the account as if he becomes the new owner of the account.
Twitter only offers one option:
Family members or an authorized person who acts on behalf of the deceased can request to have the deceased’s account deactivated provided information such as a copy of the requestor’s ID and a copy of the deceased’s death certificate be submitted to Twitter.
LinkedIn allows family members, friends and even colleagues to request LinkedIn to remove the deceased’s profile and close his account by filling out a death verification form and providing the necessary information to LinkedIn.
Instagram also allows family members to request Instagram to close and delete the deceased’s account or have it memorialised. Instagram will also require proof of death such as link to an obituary or a death certificate and a legal document that shows that the request person is legally authorised to make such a request.
Many of these websites claim that their users have placed a strong expectation of privacy and security when using their products/services.
It is for this very reason that they will always refuse to disclose the deceased’s password to anyone. That said, they do provide ways for people to remove the deceased’s accounts. Some allow restricted access to certain information, while others only allow removal of account.
What is certain is that none of the websites would allow full and unrestricted access to the account.
“We spend a huge part of our lives online, so it is becoming more and more apparent that we should plan for our own deaths online” – James Norris, founder of DeadSocial, a UK company that helps individuals create social media “goodbye messages” for their loved ones.
Proponents of the right to digital life after death advocate that since Internet companies often grant access to law enforcement agencies, it is only right that they should also grant access to family members of the deceased.
Some of the states in the US have embarked on drafting legislation to provide executors and other parties with a legal basis on which to assert authority over digital assets. In other countries including Malaysia, this grey area remains largely unregulated. While some have suggested building in a digital estate plan into a conventional will, the legality of such an approach still remains uncertain.
Until we have case law or legislation to back this up, it would be interesting to see how the law will deal with this sensitive and tricky issue.