It’s a simple question without a simple answer, unless you’re willing to accept “it depends” as a simple answer. The result depends upon what you friends and family decide to request and perhaps even what instructions you leave behind. Let’s go through Facebook’s policy and explore all of the options:
Memorialize the profile
Facebook recognizes the importance that a profile can play in remembering departed friends and family. Via a form in its help section, Facebook accepts requests to place accounts in a memorialized state. Once the request is approved by Facebook the account’s privacy is restricted to friends only and certain sensitive information is removed. The profile and wall remain active for friends to post memories and condolences.
From Facebook’s FAQ:
It is our policy to memorialize all deceased users’ accounts on the site. When an account is memorialized, only confirmed friends can see the profile (timeline) or locate it in Search. The profile (timeline) will also no longer appear in the Suggestions section of the Home page. Friends and family can leave posts in remembrance.
In order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone. However, once an account has been memorialized, it is completely secure and cannot be accessed or altered by anyone.
If you need to report a profile (timeline) to be memorialized, please click here.
While Facebook takes steps to verify requests, the requestor doesn’t have to be the decedent’s executor or even a family member, as anyone can complete the request form. This removes some control from the executor, but generally ensures that memorialization takes place at the right time.
Delete the profile
Upon request from a close family member Facebook will remove a deceased user’s profile entirely.
Quoting the FAQ again:
We will process certain special requests for verified immediate family members, including requests to remove a loved one’s account. This will completely remove the profile (timeline) and all associated content from Facebook, so no one can view it.
For all special requests, we require verification that you are an immediate family member or executor. Requests will not be processed if we are unable to verify your relationship to the deceased.
Examples of documentation that we will accept include:
- The deceased’s birth certificate
- The deceased’s death certificate
- Proof of authority under local law that you are the lawful representative of the deceased or his/her estate.
If you are an immediate family member and would like to request that we remove your loved one’s account from the site, click here. You may also use this form if you have a special request regarding the deceased user’s account.
Download the account’s information
Recently WGRZ reported that Facebook will also allow family members to download the account contents of the deceased, if prior authorization or a court order is present.
Quoting a statement from Facebook to WGRZ:
We will provide the estate of the deceased with a download of the account’s data if prior consent is obtained from or decreed by the deceased, or mandated by law.” - Fred Wolens,Facebook Policy Communications
This is the first time that we’ve heard this last part of Facebook’s policy at The Digital Beyond. Essentially this means that you can leave instructions in your will for your family to have access to the information on your Facebook account, and Facebook will honor that request. Furthermore, the last statement, “mandated by law,” indicates that Facebook will comply with estate laws from several states, which essentially grant the executor access to information stored at social networking websites specifically or all electronic information, depending upon the state.
What should you do?
If you want to have a say in what happens, you should leave instructions in your will. This will allow you to grant your heirs the right to a download of your account’s data or leave instructions to close the account entirely. You could instruct your executor to memorialize the account.
If you want to leave a goodbye message for your friends, there’s an app for that. ifidie allows you to leave a text or video message behind, which it will automatically post upon your death, after three friends or “trustees” agree that you’ve passed away.
If you’d like to create a more comprehensive digital estate plan, we have numerous resources available here at The Digital Beyond, including our list of service providers. And if you’re looking for a step-by-step guide to planning your digital legacy, our book, Your Digital Afterlife, does just that.
We also have a website dedicated to the legal aspects of digital estate planning called Digital Estate Resource.