Recently, I spoke with a Jessica Hopper at NBC Rock Center who was investigating digital legacy. Her story features the Stassen’s, a family who is seeking some answers behind their son’s suicide and are turning to Facebook to find them.
The family has obtained a court order to gain access to their son’s Facebook account on grounds that they are heirs to his estate, and as such, they are entitled to all of his assets, including digital digital, and the contents of his Facebook account. Aside from the publicly posted items, they are curious about what private information might reveal about his death.
His parents speak candidly about it in this video:
In the supporting article, Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University, commented, “What happens if a 21-year-old had a safe deposit box at the bank, the answer is the safe deposit box belongs to his estate and whoever controls the estate gets to open the box.”
“When somebody dies, the person who is responsible for taking care of the individual’s asset is supposed to be complying with what the individual wanted and protecting the individual,” said Naomi Cahn, a George Washington University law professor. “Because so many people have not thought about this, we don’t know what the person actually wanted…we can all imagine what’s in internet accounts. There may certainly be cases where the person who died would not have wanted anyone to get anywhere near the person’s account.”
Where do you stand on this? Do you believe that the heirs to the estate should have full access to digital accounts? Or do you believe that the online services have a responsibility to protect their users’ privacy, even after death?
Nebraska is the latest state to propose legislation to allow next of kin to control digital accounts after a user has passed away. Senator John Wightman is proposing Legistlative Bill 783 on behalf of the Nebraska Bar Association to clarify the rights of representatives of the deceased.
The proposed bill is modeled after Oklahoma’s digital property management after death law, that passed in 2010. The law states that “The executor or administrator of an estate shall have the poser, where otherwise authorized, to take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate any accounts of a deceased person on any social networking website, any microblogging or short message service website or any e-mail service websites.”
Idaho passed a similar law last year. Conneticut, Rhode Island, and Indiana have older legislation covering email and digital files.
The BBC told the story of a Nebraska woman who is affected by the remaining Facebook page of her sister. After 2-years, she has come to peace with the death of Janna Moore Morin, but seeing her picture on Facebook each time they log in has become a constant reminder of her family’s loss.
“The only issue that we have now is that her picture’s always popping up and her picture’s always in your friends and after a while, it just gets to be enough. You get to the point where you’ve accepted things, and you want to see pictures when you want to see them, not just whenever they pop up. And so sometimes it’s almost a deterrent to going online or going on Facebook. One of my brothers…never even uses his account because he doesn’t like to be reminded every time he goes online.”
Currently, Facebook offers two options to deal with a deceased user’s account: you may request memorialization or request the account to be closed.
In the case of the Remember Janna Moore Morin page, her sister may feel differently than other members of her family about wanting the page removed. Janna’s father posts post messages of remembrance there frequently alongside posts from friends and family. This particular case may be another of a contrast in how people mourn online.
For those who do not want to be reminded of a departed one each time they log in to Facebook, there are options other than removing the page or personal profile that may be providing comfort to others.
Simply “unliking” a Facebook page will remove the updates from your news feed. However, the posts that your friends in common make may still appear in your news feed.
“Unfriending” will remove that person’s personal profile from your friends list. A word of caution, though: Unfriending a deceased person’s profile is permanent as there will be no way for a renewed friend request to be approved, so think carefully about this option.
However, to truly manage a deceased’s digital life after they’ve passed away, the legal representative needs the right to access accounts and files across the web. The next few years will see laws passed both in the United States and elsewhere to give executors and next-of-kin the teeth they need to carry out their loved ones’ wishes.
- BBC News – Living online after death faces Nebraska legal battle
- Mashable - Facebook After Death: What Should the Law Say?
- Omaha.com - Facebook dead serious about Nebraska bill
- Facebook - Remembering Janna Moore Morin
- WGRZ – Social Media Users Can Create “Online Executor” In Will (Indicates that New York recently introduced similar legislation this month.)
- My friends at The Digital Beyond and Civics.com have teamed up to offer DigitalEstateResource.com with resources and advice for incorporating digital assets into the estate planning process. One section tracks the developments in state law.