The business of digital life and death

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  1. Can you bequeath your iTunes collection in your will?
  2. Does anyone know you have Bitcoins or money in a PayPal account?
  3. If you’ve accumulated virtual wealth in a massive multiplayer online game is that part of your estate and can you be cashed out?
  4. Can loved ones get copies of your Facebook photos and videos?
  5. What happens to your wedding videos, holiday snaps, data, email or social media accounts? More importantly, what do you want to happen? Do you want them archived, deleted, passed on?

If you’ve given these issues so much as a second thought you’re in the minority although with digital participation continuing to grow rapidly and an increasingly ageing online population that will shift.

It may seem incredulous to those still anchored to the view that social media is a young person’s game that the fastest growing social media demographic is 50 plus.

In the US 70% of 65 – 74 year olds are on Facebook, where even now there are 30 million accounts belonging to people who are no longer alive.  

For those concerned about properly managing their estate, digital death raises complex issues around what constitutes an asset or special relationship and how to balance privacy and security with passing on relevant information.

For businesses that support people to deal with death – trustee companies, estate planners, superannuation funds and financial planners – digital death presents an opportunity for thought leadership, deepening client engagement and even business growth.

First let’s look at the global context.

No international standard

There’s no international standard for estate planning.

The law differs across and within countries and is complicated by many factors including the jurisdiction within which a digital or social media platform operates.

That aside, many countries are evolving existing laws to better deal with digital death.

For example, last month in the US the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act was passed which gives the fiduciary (personal representative of a deceased person’s estate) the right to manage a digital asset like any other tangible asset.

There have not yet been specific changes to estate planning laws in Australia but that there are no simple answers.

For example, including a password in a will could backfire because under probate it becomes public.

National Manager of Estate Planning for Equity Trustees Anna Hacker says that to date, social media hasn’t been a big issue in estate planning, as the older generation is not yet attuned to it.

“However we expect that it will become a growing issue in the future because the legal treatment of digital assets after death is not clear cut,” said Hacker.

“We are increasingly raising the issue with clients when providing an estate planning service to ensure they have thought through the implications.” 

Some legal questions people need to think about when drafting a will are –

  • What constitutes a document (a will can be drafted on an iPhone but what about a note in a social media account)?
  • What constitutes a special relationship (can a will be challenged by a virtual friend)?

Different platforms, different terms

Each of the social media platforms also has a different approach to dealing with death.

Facebook – Facebook protects the privacy of someone who dies by securing the account, although a family member can request that the account be removed or memorialized.

Even if someone leaves you his or her password it’s a violation to log in.

However, the social network is evolving its approach in response to real events.

For example, a father who lost his 22-year old son asked Facebook to help him access videos and photos.

Facebook responded using its Look Back feature to create a video of favourite moments that people can view but not share, an attempt to balance sharing and privacy.

Twitter – Twitter will work with an immediate family member or estate representative to deactivate an account.

Google – Google has developed an inactive account manager which gives someone access to your Google account if you die.

It lets you set up a timer so that if you don’t use your Google account for a period Google notifies and give the person you’ve named access to selected parts of your account.

Digital executors

To prevent malicious people trying to close real accounts, social media platforms need to validate family members and get certified copies of death certificates.

Even with clear instructions and policies about digital closure it’s a time consuming process.

If you’re the executor of a will, you may not even know where to start.

If social media accounts aren’t dealt with properly there can be unwanted consequences.

There are many stories of accounts that have continued to operates and where earlier likes or dislikes triggered responses on other people’s pages, even after death.

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Dionne Lew is the CEO of the Social Executive, an advisor to boards and senior executives on digital and social media rated in the top 1% for global community influence by Kred. Her latest book, The Social Executive, is now available.

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