How a person’s death affects access to their digital footprint is an issue that will increase in importance as social media usage continues to proliferate from the young and the early adopters to the mainstream.
Uncertainties abound for executors and family members, regarding the social media accounts that the deceased may have owned, and the jurisdictions in which they operate.
While this was not much of an issue even five years ago – and was practically unheard of a decade ago – it is now a legitimate consideration that should be incorporated into estate planning discussions with your clients.
Who owns the digital footprint of your clients, and does it matter?
With most social media accounts, the real value for family members left behind is in the many photos and moments from the deceased’s life, captured over the years and stored on these platforms. Often, the photos on the social media platform don’t exist elsewhere. Having access to these images can help with the grieving process and remembering the deceased.
The statistics around the proliferation of social media show why such considerations are becoming more and more important.
The Sensis Social Media Report 2017 states that Australians’ growing obsession with smartphones continues to drive people onto social platforms, with close to eight in 10 Australians (79 per cent) now on social media.
Not surprisingly, the report found that usage is almost universal among 18- to 29-year-olds – at 99 per cent. However, big increases were recorded in the 30-39 age group (up 14 points to 96 per cent) and in the 40-49 age group (up 16 points to 86 per cent).
It found that Facebook remains the dominant force in the social media landscape, with 95 per cent of social media users on the platform. But other platforms are making serious inroads, with Instagram usage up from 31 per cent to 46 per cent, Snapchat going from 22 per cent to 40 per cent, and Twitter up from 19 per cent to 32 per cent.
LinkedIn recorded a drop in activity (down from 24 per cent to 18 per cent), but this means almost 1 in 5 Australians still use the platform.
Moves have been made by all of the social media sites to address the issue of the death of a user – but there is no uniform treatment. The status of social media accounts on death is often uncertain, as they operate in different jurisdictions around the world. Equally, in Australia there is no blanket legislation or code that allows for an estate executor or family member to gain control of social media accounts.
It can be hard to know where to start. But there are steps that can be taken either to have the account “memorialised” or taken down and deactivated. This will become increasingly relevant.
Facebook has come a long way from its situation a few years ago, when member accounts were simply deleted on death and all the information was lost to bereaved and distraught family and friends. At the time of writing, Facebook stated that it allows users to nominate a “legacy contact” who can control what happens to a user’s account after death.
On its platform, Facebook states that a legacy contact is someone you choose to look after your account if it’s memorialised. Once the account is memorialised, your legacy contact will have the option to do things like writing a pinned post for your profile; for example, to share a final message on your behalf or provide information about a memorial service.
It also allows the legacy contact to respond to new friend requests – for instance, from old friends or family members who weren’t yet on Facebook at the time of death – and to update the profile picture and cover photo. The legacy contact can also request the removal of your account.
There is also the option for the legacy contact to download a copy of what you’ve shared on Facebook.
Memorialised Facebook accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away. Memorialised accounts have the word “Remembering” next to the person’s name on their profile and depending on the privacy settings of the account, friends can share memories on the memorialised timeline. Content the person shared, such as photos and posts, stays on Facebook and is visible to the audience with which it was shared. However, users can also choose to have the account permanently deleted should they pass away.
Despite being one of the most popular platforms, Twitter doesn’t offer any sort of legacy contingencies, although family members can request that the account of a deceased person be deactivated. Twitter states that in the event of the death of a user, it can work with a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate – or with an immediate family member of the deceased – to have the account deactivated.
Instagram will memorialise an account if a family member or friend submits a request. Immediate family members can request for the account to be removed. Instagram doesn’t allow anyone to log into a memorialised account and memorialised accounts can’t be changed in any way. This includes changes to likes, followers, tags, posts and comments.
Posts the deceased person shared, including photos and videos, stay on Instagram and are visible to the audience with which they were shared.
LinkedIn doesn’t provide a memorialisation option, but it does provide functionality to request the removal of a user’s account upon their death.
Google offers the option for users to control what happens to their photos, emails and documents when they stop using their account, for any reason. After an agreed upon period of inactivity, Google contacts a previously nominated trusted contact and lets users make the decision about what happens to the information in their account.
Recognising that people do die without leaving clear instructions about how to manage online accounts, Google states that it can work with immediate family members and representatives to close the account of a deceased person. In certain circumstances, it may provide content from a deceased user’s account to the estate.
With the proliferation of social media, and its usage creeping up into the online activities of the older generation, the digital footprint of your clients, and its treatment upon their death, is becoming an increasingly important consideration for estate executors and the families of the deceased.
Anna Hacker is national manager estate planning at Australian Unity.