Digital footprints on death – why they matter


Anna Hacker

Social media accounts live on after their creators die, and their existence can create uncertainty for estate executors as well as distress for family members, says Anna Hacker, national manager, Estate Planning at Australian Unity Trustees.

“Digital footprints on death are an issue of growing importance as social media usage steadily proliferates – not just with generation Z and millennials but increasingly with older generations as well,” Ms Hacker says.

“Taking stock of and itemising the social media accounts of the deceased is difficult enough. Add to the mix the fact that these platforms tend to operate in offshore jurisdictions means there is no uniform treatment, and not a lot of local legislative guidance, on how to gain control of content and close down accounts.”

Ms Hacker says the finding last month in a Massachusetts Court in the United States is a good example.

“In the case Ajemian vs Yahoo! Inc. the Court found that legal representatives of a deceased email account holder were able to access email messages of the deceased, despite there being no Will or direct instructions allowing this to occur.

“People rarely give any thought to their digital footprint when making a Will, but with social media activity on the rise, the treatment of social media accounts and content is an issue that should be incorporated into all estate planning considerations.

“For close relatives and friends the real meaning of many of these social media platforms is the access to the photographs and images that are saved there. It is often the case that the social media platform is the only place these images are stored, and once the account is closed, they can be lost forever.”

The different social media platforms have different procedures and actions that occur on a user’s death, and it is worthwhile being across the different treatments, Ms Hacker says.
Depending on the platform, the options for family members are to have the account memorialised, or to have the account closed down

“Facebook, the most popular platform, allows users to nominate a legacy contact who can control what happens on the account on the user’s death. This takes in a simple account closure, to downloading content, to establishing a memorial site with pinned content.

“Instagram, similarly, will memorialise an account on the death of the user if a family member requests it. It will also remove an account on a family member’s request.

“Despite being one of the most popular platforms, Twitter doesn’t offer any legacy contingencies, although family members can request an account of a deceased person to be deactivated.

“For many professionals, LinkedIn is an essential communication and networking tool. While LinkedIn doesn’t provide any memoralisation options on the death of an account holder, it does provide functionality to request the removal of a user’s account.

“Consideration of your social media accounts, and the ownership of your digital footprint content in them, should not be ignored when making a Will,” Ms Hacker says.

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