The Digital Headstone: Planning for Social Media After Death

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What happens to your Facebook account when you die?  Is your twitter account going to tweet on when you are no longer around?  Believe it or not, death is changing.

Death is one of those constants in life that we can count on.  We can say with relative certainty that, barring any miraculous advances in technology, we will all pass away at some point.  We have all experienced death, whether at the funeral of a loved one, at a War Memorial, or when watching the Godfather.  During these scenes, we are often confronted with a physical representation of the deceased: a gravestone; an urn; or flowers placed at the foot of a telephone pole.  With the advent of social media, these memorials are turning up more and more in electronic form.

For instance, let’s take Facebook for example.  When a Facebook account holder passes away, the company allows the decedent’s page to be memorialized.  Memorializing an account still allows friends and family to post in remembrance, but it secures the account so that no one can sign-in to it.  It also prevents the profiles from being suggested as friends to other members and only confirmed friends can post on or find in search a profile that has been memorialized.  This allows the account to remain as a digital memorial where loved ones can go to remember the deceased through photos and comments which were posted both during life and after death.  Often times this serves as a much richer preservation of the deceased’s life than an inscription on a headstone.  It also is much more accessible to loved ones and allows for interactivity amongst friends and family as they post messages in memory of the deceased.

One of the issues which is increasingly garnering attention is the ownership of social media after someone has passed away.  Oklahoma recently passed a law which allows friends or relatives to take control of social media accounts if the deceased person lived in the state.  The measure essentially treats Facebook, Twitter and email accounts as digital assets that could be closed or continued by an appointed representative.  Nebraska and Oregon are both working on similar legislation.

Given the increasing relevance of social media, it is prudent to consider how you want these accounts to be treated in the event of your passing.  Creating a “virtual asset instruction letter” which lists online information and passwords will allow your appointed loved ones the requisite access to your accounts.  You should also give your loved ones instructions as to how you would like your accounts managed or if you would like the accounts to be terminated.  People have even gone so far as to name “online executors” and itemizing account passwords in their wills.

As social media use is most prevalent amongst young people, I’m sure many readers may not have estate planning high on their list of priorities.  However, it is fairly simple and inexpensive to put your wishes in writing.  Even an informal document may help to give your loved ones direction and access to what is increasingly becoming the most important documentation of your life: your social media accounts.

Brian Y. Chou is an estate planning attorney based in Southern California at the Law Firm of Barth Calderon, LLP.

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About brianychou

Brian Y. Chou is an Associate Attorney at the firm of Barth Calderon LLP and his practice focuses on asset protection, estate planning, and business succession planning. Mr. Chou assists clients in all stages of life, from the young professional couple that is concerned about estate planning for their minor children, to the wealthy real estate investor who wants to insulate himself and his properties from lawsuits, to the successful business owner who is agonizing about how to transition his company to the next generation. Mr. Chou understands that coming to grips with an impending lawsuit and confronting one’s mortality are typically not high on most clients’ list of things to do and his goal is to make the planning as accessible, digestible and (dare we say it?) enjoyable as possible. Mr. Chou seeks to build lifelong relationships with his clients to ensure that as their personal lives and legal situations evolve, their planning continues to accurately reflect their wishes. In addition to working with clients to protect and transition their assets, Mr. Chou actively seeks to be a resource to his clients in all aspects of their lives. He encourages his clients to contact him with all manner of needs, whether it be a plumber to fix a clogged drain, or a qualified accountant to contest an aggressive property tax reassessment or anything in between. An avid public speaker, Mr. Chou has presented to numerous groups all over Southern California, including University of California Irvine, Cal State Long Beach, the Planned Giving Roundtable of Orange County, and the California Society of Tax Consultants. He is also especially proud of passing the California State Bar Certified Specialists Exam for Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law. Mr. Chou has also obtained his Series 7 & Series 63 Securities licenses and is also a licensed life & health insurance agent. For Mr. Chou, establishing a connection with the community is paramount. To this end, he is active in a number of organizations, including the Estate Planning & Trust Council of Long Beach, Provisors, Business Networking International, and Comprehensive Child Development, a non-profit providing early childhood educational programs for low income families in Long Beach. Brian Y. Chou is a native of New Jersey and the son of Chinese immigrants. After high school, he moved out to the west coast to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, where he received a degree in economics. Upon the completion of his degree, Brian earned a JD/MBA degree from Pepperdine University. During his time at Pepperdine, he participated in a number of activities. Notably, Brian was a literary citations editor for the Dispute Resolution Law Journal, the President of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, the Vice Magister of Phi Delta Phi Honors Fraternity, and a member of the Moot Court Board. He also worked in the Career Development Office at the Pepperdine School of Law and remains involved with the community there. Before establishing his estate planning practice, Brian worked for a law firm in the Inland Empire specializing in insurance defense and construction defect litigation. Prior to that, he clerked at law firms in West Los Angeles where he participated in the practice of Workers Compensation litigation and general corporate law. He is committed to using his broad range of experiences to build relationships and effectively represent his clients in a way that is thoughtful and pleasant for all parties involved. In addition to his professional achievements, Brian can speak Mandarin Chinese and can understand Cantonese. His interests include: surfing, basketball, tennis, jogging, drawing and cooking.
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