What Happens to My Social Media Accounts When I Die?
Have you ever wondered what happens to your social media accounts when you die?
The Usual Accounts
Many people have social media accounts and other electronic accounts such as Amazon, Facebook, email, and maybe even a membership to a dating site. Others may receive electronic copies of bank statements, retirement accounts, and brokerage accounts. They may even receive electronic bills for utilities or have automatic withdraws from their bank account or recurring charges to their credit cards for subscriptions to Netflix or Hulu. Even those who do not transact business electronically may still have a social media account, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube or iTunes.
Although most of us probably only have the usual types of accounts, maybe with some embarrassing emails, others may have valuable accounts such as frequently flier miles or bitcoin. Recently the CEO of cryptocurrency company Quadriga CX died unexpected. He was the only one who had the password to access $200 million dollars in Bitcoin held for his customers. Even his laptop, email addresses and messaging systems were encrypted.
Give Access to Your Accounts
Although we take steps to protect these accounts during our life, it can wreak havoc on your next of kin after you pass away if you do not take the necessary steps in your estate planning.
There are a couple of reasons why it is important that you give someone the authority to manage your accounts upon your death and access your digital assets.
Stop the Automatic Withdraws
First, someone needs to notify the companies so you can stop paying.
Obtain Sentimental Items
Second, some of the information on the accounts may have sentimental value, such as family photos that family members may want, or play lists on your iTunes account, whereas others may have monetary value such as a domain name or income from a YouTube channel.
Laws Prohibit Access
If your next of kin merely contacts the companies and asks for your password, they may not be successful. Companies are unlikely to share your account information with your next of kin because the federal statute called the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. § § 2701 et seq. makes it a criminal offense for companies to give unauthorized access to the electronic accounts. Therefore, many companies are afraid to release the account information unless an exception to the law applies. One of the exceptions to the statute is lawful consent.
In a 2017 case in Massachusetts, Yahoo! refused to give an executor access to his deceased brother’s emails. Yahoo! argued that the federal law required the deceased to give “actual consent” for another person to access their account. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in the case Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., 84 N.E.3d 766, 478 Mass.169 (2017), disagreed and found in favor of the executor.
The Texas legislature addressed access to electronic communications upon the death of the account holder in the Texas Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. Yes, that is a mouthful, but the initialism TRUFADAA is not any better. In any event, it sets forth how your executor can obtain access to your digital assets after your death. If the deceased has used an online tool to direct the site to disclose the content to a specific person, then the site may give the named designee access. For example, Facebook allows an account holder to add a legacy contact to the account by making selections in this General Settings.
If the deceased account owner did not use an online tool to give another person access to the account, then companies will look to the account owner’s will to see if it gives another person the authority to access the account. If neither one exists, then the terms of service on the account will determine whether the executor may have access to the account.
Options to Avoid Hassle
What should you do if you have digital accounts and don’t want your next of kin to have to jump through these hoops? You could make a list of your accounts and passwords and store it in a safe place. At the time of your death, your next of kin could delete your accounts for you, although that may not be consistent with the agreement you have with the service providers. Another option is for you to state in your will that you are giving your executor the specific power to take control of or terminate your accounts.
In the event you have embarrassing emails or accounts you don’t want your family to know about, you could name a “digital executor” to handle only your digital accounts. This allows your digital executor to access your accounts for the purpose of terminating your account and/or removing the contents without having to expose your family members to your electronic life.
You should consult an estate planning attorney to have specific language in your will so your next of kin are not locked out of your digital accounts. The Law Office of Hugh Spires, Jr. can assist you in preparing the documents you need.