Should your loved ones be able to gain access to your Facebook after you die? By Linda Cummins, Head of Wills & Probate at GWlegal

Published: 22/01/2018

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, eBay, Amazon, email accounts. The list of ‘digital assets’ the average person now has goes on. But what happens to them after we pass away?

As dictated by the terms and conditions of most of the online platforms you use, your loved ones cannot access your accounts after you’re gone. Indeed, the law also dictates similar terms. Under the Computer Misuse Act 1990, gaining access to someone else’s online accounts, even if they have left you their passwords, is an offence. However, prosecution may be unlikely . Indeed, it could be argued that the law needs to be reformed to suit the advancements in technology that have occurred since the implementation of the 1990 Act, when social media, email and online shopping, in its current forms, did not exist.

Facebook, and what happens to your accounts once deceased, is the most commonly talked-about digital asset dilemma.

When you die, your relatives have two choices – ask for your account/s to either be deleted or memorialised.

If deleted, all content and photographs will be lost.

If memorialised, all content will remain indefinitely visible to ‘friends’ (those on your friend list). Depending on your privacy settings, ‘friends’ may also be able to post on your timeline. To memorialise an account, you must submit a request to Facebook, which could require evidence such as a link to an obituary. Your loved ones will not be allowed to ‘login’ to your accounts, so reading private messages on Facebook Messenger etc. is impossible. The latter has proven controversial in recent times, especially in the case of suicides. Many parents may wish to access their child’s messages to see if, for example, they experienced bullying, but access will be denied by Facebook unless a court order is obtained.

Having your Facebook account memorialised could take months. Meanwhile, other online services such as Gmail/Outlook/Hotmail, WhatsApp and Skype don’t appear to have solid processes in place, should the user pass away.

Should your closest relatives be able to login to your accounts, once you’re gone?

That’s a tricky question especially in tragic cases where, for instance, a teenager commits suicide. Facebook is likely to give police access to records in the case of say, a child safety issue, but won’t let parents investigate why their child took their own life by means of reading their private messages. It’s a complicated and both legally- and emotionally-complex issue to resolve. 

Some have suggested that a ‘Facebook Power of Attorney’ of sorts could work. When signing up to the platform, users could select one designated person who would gain access to the account should the owner die. Such an option however, could violate the platform’s own privacy T&Cs and is cloudy in terms of the law, especially across jurisdictions. It could also pose problems if users aren’t vigilant with keeping their designated person up-to-date (e.g. an ex-partner could gain access to your account and post malicious content).

The following may be/are possible solutions for online users to consider:

·       Keep an inventory of your digital assets

Passwords to social media, your email, online accounts/subscriptions, personal or business website, blogs, etc. should be stored in a secure manner. Your inventory could also include details of where files are stored on your devices (e.g. photos on your computer your relatives may want access to or business details) and any relevant device access codes (e.g. phone and tablet passcodes, computer passwords).

·       Choose someone to be responsible for your assets

This should be someone you trust, such as a partner, sibling or parent.

·        Provide instructions on how you’d like your assets handled

Things to consider include: How/if you would like online acquaintances to be notified of your death; if you’d like your accounts closed and if so, which ones; any documents or images you do not want deleted; whether any information you have should be donated to family members, a particular university or charity.

·        Give appropriate authority in your will

You should list the person in your will. An experienced wills and probate solicitor can assist you further in ensuring your will is all-inclusive.

‘Beyond the grave’ apps – Using technology to safely store your data

For safety and privacy reasons, many users change the passwords frequently. As such, it could be difficult to store your data and passwords in a secure and up-to-date fashion.

Content correct at time of publication.

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