Today, everything is online. People build complex virtual realities through social media, professional and personal websites, and even dating sites. We date online, buy groceries online, sell everything from books to brake pads online, and we even register stars online. So, naturally when we die, there is a lot of personal information about us still available on the Web. After all, the Internet does not come to a screeching halt just because one person passes away. Some have even asked attorneys if they can leave their virtual reality to a loved one. In some ways, the answer may be yes.
But one might ask, what becomes of all that information? What if we own a business or have a public brand, such as a celebrity or business owner? Believe it or not, there are several interesting ways that people can preserve their virtual presence after death and even leave certain intangible benefits found uniquely in the virtual world.
Facebook Legacy Accounts
According to the most recent Census, there are currently about 321,230,000 people living in the U.S. Facebook has 350,000,000 users. That’s right, there are more members than the entire population of America. So, it is safe to say that Facebook has become an almost ubiquitous way to communicate in the modern world. It is used personally and professionally to keep in touch, to promote bands and businesses, and to organize events and causes. However, people die. And when a Facebook user dies, there used to be no options for closing the account. These accounts would sort of languish in the World Wide Web like stray electronic tumbleweeds. Fortunately, Facebook developed a way for family and friends to either close an account or keep it active as a “Legacy Account.”
A legacy account, as they are called, allows a memorial site to remain active for a deceased user, so that family and friends may occasionally pay respects via Facebook, leave kind words for family, and even leave virtual flowers and other gifts. Some people have used these accounts to set up “Fund Me” accounts and other forms of fundraising activities for family and children of deceased users. Setting up a legacy account is very simple, but the user must enable this feature while still living.
Other Social Media
Although sites like LinkedIn and Twitter have not yet embraced the idea of a legacy account, loved ones certainly can close these accounts. Neither site permits family and friends to “access” accounts. Instead, you must request that a deceased person’s account be closed permanently and provide certain information to verify the death. But this is really just a technicality for the tech-savvy estate planner. One way around this is to document your user login information and password. You can simply put them, along with any other key user names and passwords, in a letter to your chosen personal representative. Place that letter in a safe deposit box at your local bank along with your will and other final planning documents. Tell your representative which bank you are using and inform the bank to let that person have access upon presentation of your death certificate. Then your representative can carry out any wishes you may have for your social media sites.
Of course, one should consult an estate planning attorney to determine whether any of the proposed actions could have a negative impact on the proposed estate plan or likelihood of potential litigation. For instance, if a legacy page could be misused by an unscrupulous heir to defraud or embezzle, or if inappropriate posts could lead to will contests or probate litigation, an attorney may advise against it. Nevertheless, everyday deceased people are speaking from the grave on social media, and in many ways though no longer with us in body, they are alive and well in virtual spirit.