social media after death

It’s a tangled Web we leave when it comes to managing digital assets after death.

Email, blogs, financial accounts, Internet properties, files and social networks live on after we’re no longer physically here—and without the passwords, family and loved ones can be shut out from important information at a difficult time.

Identity thieves cause additional heartache by stealing personal information of the deceased and spamming friends and relatives. Nowhere is that more prevalent that on social networks. Friend requests and recommendations may be made to and from the deceased through automated programs, mutual friends or hackers. And while social networks have policies on deactivating accounts of the deceased, they usually require additional proof in the form of death certificates and published obituaries.

Increasingly, attorneys and estate planners recommend naming beneficiaries to one’s digital content, that is giving them access to log-in information, much like they would with bank accounts, stocks and safe deposit boxes.

Some survivors, at least on Facebook, create a “fan page” for friends to post photos and words of remembrance in memory of a loved one. But if deactivating accounts is your goal—and it’s the most secure method to prevent spam and possible hacking—here’s what you need to know:

Instead of allowing a family member to simply take control of a deceased user’s account, the largest social media website—with more than 1 billion users worldwide—lets them either memorialize or delete the account.

don’t accept new friends and, depending on privacy settings, allow only confirmed friends to visit the page to view photographs and leave posts of remembrance. Content that the deceased shared, such as photos or posts, remains visible to the audience it was previously shared with, but memorialized timelines don’t appear in People You May Know and other suggestions.

When , proof of death is required, such as an obituary, news article or Internet link. Unlike other social media services, Facebook allows non-family members to perform this task.

To , Twitter says it will “work with a person authorized to act on the behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased.” It requires, via mail or fax to 415-865-5405, the username on the account, a copy of the deceased user’s death certificate, a copy of the requester’s driver’s license or other government-issued ID, and other information, such as the relationship to the deceased. Family members can save a backup of the deceased’s Tweets.

Anyone, family or not, can request to delete the account of a deceased member. The process starts by answering questions on an and providing proof of death—a death certificate, obituary, news article or Internet link.

Several months ago, Google launched an that allows users to share information after they die on company sites including Gmail, Blogger, Picasa and YouTube. If there’s a period of inactivity, from three to 18 months, Google will first try to contact the account holders. If there’s no response, it alerts friends or family members who can access whatever personal data you granted.

To , an authorized representative of an estate must apply directly to Google. The process consists of two stages: First, reps must provide, by mail or fax to 650-396-4502, their contact information and proof of identity, along with the deceased’s death certificate and Gmail address. Then, after what may take months, properly vetted reps must provide additional legal documents, including an order from a U.S. court.

Brett Montgomery is a fraud operations manager at the IDentity Theft 911 Fraud Resolution Center.

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