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We are often warned that the Internet is forever. Since we users are not (yet) immortal, what happens to our online lives after our corporal ones are over?
On Thursday, Facebook announced that users can now designate a legacy contact: "a family member or friend who can manage their account when they pass away." So what happens to your feed after you've shuffled off your last status update? And what about your digital assets: email, e-books, etc.?
While some states have enacted laws addressing a deceased person's online accounts (and the Uniform Law Commission has proposed a nationwide statute on the matter), more often than not, how your data is dealt with after death will come down to your particular service provider. Here's a general overview:
Tending to Your Timeline
While you can opt to have Facebook simply delete your account after your death, a legacy contact can continue to curate your account after you pass away. A designated legacy contact can post to your memorialized timeline, allow new friend requests, and update your profile picture and cover photo. However, your legacy contact cannot log on as you or see your private messages.
Whether you want your profile to eulogize you or be erased, you may want to configure these settings before you pass, so there is no confusion.
Your Inbox in Memoriam
Even more so than Facebook, our email addresses, inboxes, and associated files have become essential in our daily lives. And yet there doesn't appear to be any consistency in how these accounts will be handled after a person's death. Google includes Gmail in its Inactive Account Manager tool, which allows you to provide friends or family members with access, or delete your account upon death.
Currently, Yahoo prohibits any access to a user's account by any other person, but may respond to requests that the account be deleted. Hotmail can provide the content of the account and deletion after authenticating the user's death, but also bars access or transfer of ownership.
Your 'Digital Estate'
Along with personal information and data, we also own a lot of "stuff" on the Internet. So can you bequeath your digital estate, including music and e-books, to your heirs? As of yet, most online music outlets aren't selling actual songs, but merely the rights to use the MP3 or other digital file. The same is true for e-books, so it appears that you can't hand down your online purchases.
With state laws about "digital estates" in flux and companies enforcing different rules, it may help to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your options.