Facebook: Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way

If you have a will, you’ve probably set out your wishes for your life savings, your house, your old record collection and other important assets. But what about your Facebook and Gmail accounts? What becomes of the thousands of photos, messages and wall posts you’ve stored online?

As people’s lives, communication, and memories become increasingly Internet-based, that question is becoming increasingly important. But unlike more tangible property, digital assets create an inherent tension for service providers between honoring privacy agreements with users and making these digital assets available to those left behind.

The law in this area, as with most digital innovations, has struggled to keep pace. Currently, only five states (Rhode Island, Connecticut, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Idaho) have enacted statutes regarding digital assets and estate planning.

Absent guidance from statutes or case law, many service providers have established policies to address their users’ digital assets in the afterlife:

  • Facebook has consistently fought against being compelled to turn over access to private content, but, upon request, will memorialize the deceased’s account to allow friends and family to write on the wall in remembrance. Facebook will also close the account if it receives a formal request from a family member or upon legal request.
  • Yahoo! permanently deletes all content and terminates the account when it receives a copy of a death certificate.
  • PayPal permits only the personal representative to close the account. Any funds left in the account will be issued by check in the account holder’s name.
  • Twitter allows the family members to delete the account or save a backup of the public Tweets.
  • YouTube will grant the personal representative access to the account.
  • Because iTunes provides only a license to use the digital files, there is currently no way to transfer iTunes media on death, much to the dismay of Bruce Willis.

So, for the time being, experts suggest that you set out in detail in your will your wishes for those Instagrammed snapshots of last night’s boeuf bourguignon and Google Talk logs.

Also, in case you’d like to leave a Facebook message for those you’ve left behind, rest assured, there’s an app for that. And I hate to be morbid, but shouldn’t it be called “whenidie”?