Guard your digital profile after death

Get ready for Facebook ‘wills’, says Dorothy Kellas on FA
Picture: GettyPicture: Getty
Picture: Getty

This year, Facebook (FB) launched its “legacy contact” feature in the United States and it is now available in the UK (under “Security Settings”). This allows FB users to appoint a legacy contact who will be permitted to administer the page after death – although the ability to write posts may be restricted to one pinned post death.

This is an interesting development in a fast-moving area but one which has been called for due to requests from hundreds of thousands of FB users who have faced this issue. Time will tell if this proves to be a useful development or whether it leads to more contentious issues, for example if the legacy contact and the Executor appointed under the Will are different and they have different views.

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Currently, if FB users do not name a legacy contact, but do authorise someone to deal with their digital assets within their will, FB will designate that person as a legacy contact. These legacy contacts will be able to update the cover and profile photo and approve new friend requests. Additional permission may be given to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information that they had shared on FB. Previously, it had been possible to create a memorialised page on Facebook but these could not be updated.

Increasingly we live our lives online and there can be few people who do not use any aspect of online shopping, banking or social media. This in turn poses some problems for those dealing with a person’s assets post death. Those charged with that process are required to gather information about assets and liabilities but how do they know they have a comprehensive picture if some information is only available online?

Those with that responsibility will be the executors. To ensure you can choose whom you wish to take that role, you must make a Will. In your Will you can give directions about what to do with online accounts, if you wish.

We also recommend maintaining a list of such online accounts and letting your Executors know where that list may be located. Obviously, it is sensible to keep it in a secure place and not to include security information such as passwords. If an executor is appointed to a deceased’s estate, he or she tends to be able to deal with the relevant agencies directly as long as the existence of the accounts is known.

It is important to deal with online accounts, including email, quickly to avoid hacking or scamming, which can lead to much more distress for the family. Closing down email accounts can be tricky and it is helpful if your Executor is familiar with what to do.

However, social media gives rise to some particular issues and with more than 35 million people worldwide updating their FB status daily, awareness needs to be raised about the importance of assigning responsibility for these accounts after death. Some families would not wish to maintain any sort of profile post death (and generally, in most cases, they would wish posts on the likes of Twitter, which have been scheduled to appear in future, be cancelled) but for others keeping a presence as a focus for sharing memories is a helpful part of bereavement. Difficulties can arise when there is no consensus amongst those affected.

It is therefore hugely helpful for an individual with a social media account to give instructions as to what they would wish happen on death - again this can be done in a Will. The appointment of a legacy contact in Facebook may also be a way of doing so.

The main message is that it is crucial to consider your online presence and ensure the people you would leave behind know how to access and deal with all your online accounts. There will doubtless be more developments in this area as providers react to events and customer demand.

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Dorothy Kellas is a Partner in the private client team at Lindsays: