Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

After You Die, There's a Debate About Your Data

A brief guide to preparing your online data for the afterlife

Facebook on Thursday said it has finally decided how to handle the photos and friend requests of its deceased users. In Facebook's settings, people can now appoint a friend or family member to be in charge of their legacy. The person gets to make one last public post, download all their loved one's Facebook photos, and respond to friend requests.

The decision was applauded by estate planners—especially because it gets around the issue of needing a password to get into people's accounts. Yet it doesn't solve all the problems around online information after death.

For example, what happens if a user dies, and family members want to see private messages to get clues about whether it was a suicide? Using their password to get into the account, which is banned by Facebook's terms of service, would violate federal privacy laws, says James Lamm, a principal at a Minnesota firm in charge of estate planning. Appointing a legacy account handler on Facebook also isn't legally binding and doesn't transfer any of the intellectual property on videos or poetry the person may have posted, he said.

For attorneys such as Lamm, who works at the estate planning group of Gray Plant Mooty, the infrastructure of the digital world has created countless barriers for clients seeking to access bank accounts, find answers surrounding a death, or simply collect all the memories they can about the person they lost. Passwords, terms of service, encryption, and cloud storage all complicate the search for information required after a death. 

"People get their income statements electronically; they get bills electronically; and if the fiduciary for the will doesn't have access to that, it may lead to costs and delays, and we may be missing valuable financial assets," Lamm says. "Facebook's move is a nice helpful step. I hope other companies follow suit."

Some companies have particularly stringent policies. Here's a brief guide on how to prepare your online identity for the afterlife.

Apple

Apple's terms of service in the U.S. say that if you die, you can't designate anybody else to get into your account. "Any rights to your Apple ID or content within your account terminate upon your death," Apple's iCloud terms in the U.S. say. "Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate your account may be terminated and all content within your account deleted."

Yahoo!

Yahoo's wording is similar. The terms mean that after death, cancelling bills, many of which are now auto-paid online or arranged through e-mail, may be more difficult. Some cable or Internet providers that don't have the right passcodes or account information can require mailing a death certificate and a legal cover letter, says Woodrow Levin, chief executive officer of Estate Assist. E-mail accounts may also give clues or avenues to other revenue streams, such as blogs with regular advertising revenue or Bitcoins, which may not otherwise be discovered.

"That's like saying if my dad passes away, I'm just going to throw away all his stuff and burn it," Levin says. "It should be up to the people left in charge of the estate."

Google

Google was the first large company to create a policy for dealing with the data of deceased users involving their survivors. Like Facebook, Google allows someone to decide whether his or her profile should be deleted after death or to create an "inactive account manager." Once that person has died, the account manager can fill out a form to request data or shut it down, among other options. 

"We can work with immediate family members and representatives to close online accounts in some cases once a user is known to be deceased, and in certain circumstances we may provide content from a deceased user’s account," the company says.

All the uncertainty has, of course, created opportunity. Levin founded his company and raised money from venture capitalists to create a lockbox of personal data for survivors to review after death. Lamm has seen an increase in people who want to add instructions to their wills for how their online accounts should be managed.

"What I tell my clients is, make a list of any of your digital property that is financially valuable or sentimental to you, and tell us how do we get that, how do we get in, and where would you like it to go?" Lamm says. "It's becoming more commonplace."