This is a simple question and we wish there was a simple answer. Unfortunately there isn’t a standard way that Internet users can expect service providers to handle their accounts after death. Every provider has a “terms of service” (the legalese) that governs your account. Unfortunately for consumers, no two are alike.
We cover this pretty extensively in the second half of our book, Your Digital Afterlife, but here’s a quick run down of some popular providers and what happens at each:
Your heirs can request that your account be deleted or “memorialized.” Memorialized profiles restrict profile access to confirmed friends, and allow friends and family to write on the user’s Wall in remembrance. You shouldn’t count on it staying active since anyone can request that it be memorialized by simply notifying Facebook and showing a death certificate or a news article that indicates your death.
Facebook has also introduced a new feature that allows you to “Download Your Information” This tool lets you download a copy of your photos, videos, wall posts, messages, friends list and other content. The file that you download can be opened in your browser so you can navigate through your content.
Gmail provides instructions for gaining access to deceased user’s account in its help documents. They outline the steps to gaining access, which include a death certificate, and email you have received from the account in question and proof that you have legal authority over the estate.
Twitter addresses this issue in its help documents:
If we are notified that a Twitter user has passed away, we can remove their account or assist family members in saving a backup of their public Tweets.
Please contact us with the following information:
- Your full name, contact information (including email address), and your relationship to the deceased user.
- The username of the Twitter account, or a link to the profile page of the Twitter account.
- A link to a public obituary or news article.
Twitter is unique in that they offer survivors an archive of the user’s public Tweets. That’s actually very helpful as it’s often difficult to archive a Twitter account yourself.
Yahoo (which owns services like Flickr and Delicious) includes the following paragraph in its terms:
No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.
Yahoo takes a harsh stance on death, but the good news is that they will not take this action without the receipt of a death certificate. It’s possible for you to ask your digital executor to archive your Yahoo account contents before presenting Yahoo with a death certificate.
YouTube also lists their policy for deceased users in its help documents.
If an individual has passed away and you need access to the content of his or her YouTube account, please fax or mail us the following information:
- Your full name and contact information, including a verifiable email address.
- The YouTube account name of the individual who passed away.
- A copy of the death certificate of the deceased.
- A copy of the document that gives you Power of Attorney over the YouTube account.
- If you are the parent of the individual, please send us a copy of the Birth Certificate if the YouTube account owner was under the age of 18. In this case, Power of Attorney is not required.
Thanks for breaking it down like this! It is a great compilation of resources for all the major digital platforms. You guys have really made me think about what to do with all the online/digital representations of myself.
I have a couple questions though. Do you know if the policy for Gmail is different than for a Google Account? It seems that they would have one version that should cover everything, since you can use a Google Account to sign in to several products, including YouTube and Google Analytics. Also, does Facebook provide any guidance for all of the apps and products that integrate with their services (particularly with the surge of the “Sign in with Facebook” widgets)?
I look forward to reading your book! It’s next on my to-read list.
Thanks for the feedback. I haven’t seen a policy from Google as a whole with respect to their umbrella accounts, but there is some similarity between the Gmail and YouTube policies. I would imagine that Google might shy away from a broad-sweeping policy, because the content at each particular service (like Google Analytics or AdWords, for example) is very different. I know would probably prefer that they take those different contexts into account.
Thinking about Facebook, I haven’t seen anything with respect to login capabilities and deceased users from them. It’s definitely something that they should address as Facebook credentials are quickly becoming a master key to other online accounts.
Maybe those service providers can add one attribution to let the user indicate who can access/deal with his/her digital contents as a digital will and the authentication code.
But I think most people don’t like to use this attribution, since it soundes jinx.
As a Director of Social Services for a large, non-profit hospice program this information is invaluable. My team of 25 social workers and chaplains help terminal patients and their loved ones prepare for the end of life.
This assistance involves not only counseling to deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of dying, but also the practical issues of “getting your affairs in order.” More and more this will involve getting one’s digital affairs in order.
Thanks for sharing. I know the important role that hospice programs provide and am pleased that we could help you out. Keep up the good work.
There’s another issue that I don’t know if anyone has addressed. How do you let your online friends KNOW that you’ve passed-on? In the age of chat-rooms, blogs, MMORPGs, etc, it’s possible to have friends who only know you through your online presence.
While it’s more rare these days since AOL has gone defunct and many people have left Yahoo Chats to escape the hordes of chat-bots, it’s still possible and I still have a few friends from those days. If I stopped hearing from one suddenly, I wouldn’t have any way to know if they had died or simply stopped getting online, unless someone happened to “memorialize” their facebook profile. Do relatives know how to access an email address and set up an auto-respond? And would you necessarily want your family to start poking through your contacts and old emails?
William, hospice workers have an excellent opportunity to ease the transition of digital assets from the terminally ill to their loved ones.
Evan and I talk a lot in our book about making an inventory of important digital assets before death. A simple inventory and little planing can eliminate most of the difficulties experienced by survivors.
Thanks a million for this site!
Saw you guys on Fox News! Really interesting. Looking forward for it to be in my hands!
This is interesting and a topic I think not a lot of people think a lot about. Thanks for the overview of the main social sites- it definitely gives insight into what happens!
Where can I get your book?
Our book is available most places books our sold. We’ve got several links at http://www.yourdigitalafterlife.com if you’d like to order online.
Thanks, this is very interesting. However, I was surprised that LinkedIn was not included in your review. Any particular reason?
Good to know that some companies have policies on how to treat their accounts when their customers dies. More an issue besides the accounts you mention would be websites and also domains names.
I think this could be an even bigger concern especially when websites and domains have a real value. With that said, would it be better in some cases to just let the account be?
Thank you for the information. I would like to contact William in order to offer the services of our website to help patients of his non-profit hospice program. The website is http://www.psAfterlife.com and it was design thinking in people who need to get their affairs in order. Hope you can check it and contact us.
That is a good issue to bring up was always wondering what would happen with all my emails when I gone. I certainly would not want my relatives to read them =)
Thanks for the info. I would be much at peace with these useful tips on what to do with all my accounts and emails when I’m gone. I’ll make sure to share it to my friends so they will not worry anymore on what to do with their emails when their gone.
Keep it up!
I continue to be amazed at how this discussion has gone way beyond what I said. :–)
I just don’t understand how servers will able to handle the volume of data of the deceased with it’s living subscribers.
Because we can’t see social media servers, i.e. clouds, we think of them as big as the sky itself. Infinite. But they’re not.
I do think eventually this is what will see. If the site’s “detectors,” do not notice any activity over “x,” period of time, either because that person is deceased, or rarely visits/posts/uploads they will have to initiate a use it or lose it policy. Unless you can formally designate it a memorial page & even then not all content may remain.
Upon creating your page you will agree if ” x site ,” is not used at least ” x times,” over a period of “x,” the site/page will automatically be deleted.Some would cry UNFAIR, but if it meant charging others, trust me, they’d rather you lose it than having to pay for it.
Or we could see different packages from FREE to various Premium Packages, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. At the very least a limit on bandwidth or uploads would stop you cousin Sheila from posting 82,000 photos of herself on vacation.
Lastly there is no proof all the portable hard drives, & servers will last indefinitely. Hacking aside, until Marty McFly comes back from the future to prove the photos you’ve stored on your personal terabyte drive or in the cloud did indeed last, you have to believe some, maybe many, will have crashed. If you’re lucky most of the data lost will be Aunt Sheila’s vacation photos.
I do feel it seems that every company could decide their own policy which would affact our rights of digital accets.How do you think of that one day we shall have a standard policy or solution to the problem?
You’re correct that Facebook has changed its policy, but that hasn’t removed the notion of a memorialized account. Now when an account is memorialized all of the user’s privacy settings remain in effect. Previously, those settings were changed to allow only friends to see any content. I think this is a step in the right direction. I have more information on the change here: https://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/2014/03/facebook-changes-policy-on-privacy-settings-for-memorialized-accounts/
Heavenote.com does the same, in Japan and it’s free !
thank you! i have been struggling w/my hubbys computer since he died 18 months ago.. Would a person, wife, get into legal trouble by acessing her deceased hubbys accounts?His will said nothing about his digital accounts, just that i was in charge of everything. What if a wife, hypethetically, signed in,and used her hubbys accounts, NOT posing as him, just “browsing”?