When Facebook suggested Ben as a potential friend for Anna, the South Jersey woman* was unnerved. Anna hadn’t known Ben well, but she was aware he had died months earlier.
“His face popped up on my screen, out of the blue. It was disturbing,” recalls Anna.
Such stories are not unusual, as people’s Facebook and other social-media accounts often live on after their death. In fact, nearly 200 million such “zombie accounts” haunt the Internet, according to one estimate. And the number will only rise, as younger people are more active online.
That’s a lot of automatic birthday reminders from the deceased…
In worse instances, these undead accounts can be repositories for hurtful messages. Such is the case with late Phillies great Roy Halladay, whose Facebook page contains insensitive posts about the plane crash that took his life.
Fortunately, Facebook and other digital platforms offer ways to avoid such pitfalls. And with proper planning, your social media accounts can even serve as a lasting memorial. So take steps now to spare your loved ones from this added burden – and further heartbreak – after your death.
The first thing everyone should do is inventory their online accounts, including social media and email.
Make a list of your usernames and passwords, then state what you want to happen to each account. For example, you might want your Facebook page to become a memorial page, but your thousands of emails to disappear. Keep your list in a secure place that trusted people know about. And remember to update your records each time you add or delete an account.
If you store data in the cloud – such as important photos and documents – back them up to a hard drive. That will provide your heirs quicker, easier access to these mementos.
You can also work with an estate-planning attorney to document your wishes for your online afterlife. Consider appointing a “digital executor” to handle your social media and email accounts. This can also spare your loved ones from any embarrassing revelations lurking in old messages or photos.
Some accounts, like Google and Twitter, will automatically delete themselves after a certain period of inactivity. Certain platforms allow you to change this time period in the account’s settings. If you want someone to know of this “deadline,” be sure to make note of it. And be aware that any autodelete instructions you’ve arranged will override any instructions you leave in your will.
Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other major platforms allow you to choose settings for how your accounts and data are handled.
With Facebook, for instance, you can choose to have your account “memorialized” or permanently deleted after death.
“Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away,” states Facebook. Another benefit: memorialized accounts can’t be hacked, because they can’t be logged into.
Here are the key features of a memorialized Facebook account:
If you want someone to manage your Facebook account after your death, you need to designate a “legacy contact” in your settings. Otherwise, your memorialized account can’t be changed. However, Facebook will accept a “valid request” to delete a memorialized account.
Once your page is memorialized, your legacy contact can:
At the same time, your legacy contact cannot:
It’s easy to designate a legacy contact. Just open your Facebook account and go to Settings, then Manage Account. Under Your Legacy Contact, type in your designee’s name.
You’ll also see a box where you can send your legacy contact a message to notify them of your choice, either immediately or later (you may want to talk to them first). Don’t forget to tell them, though, so they can memorialize your account after your death.
Below, there’s a box titled “Data Archive Permission,” which can allow your legacy contact to download a copy of your Facebook data (except for messages). To allow this, click the checkbox. When you’re finished with each section of the legacy contact page, click Close.
If you do not designate a legacy contact before you die, no one will be able to manage your Facebook account — but someone can still memorialize it. A loved one will need to complete a “Memorialization Request” form at Facebook’s website, including proof of your death. Alternatively, an immediate family member can request that your account be deleted, using Facebook’s “Special Request for Deceased Person’s Account” form. The relative will need to provide proof that they’re an immediate family member, along with other information.
If you don’t want your Facebook account to live on after your death, you can request to have your account permanently deleted instead of choosing a legacy contact. Simply click on the link in the next section of the Your Legacy Contact page, where it says “Request account deletion.”
Facebook also offers another option: You or your loved ones can set up a separate place to share memories by creating a group.
You can engage a third-party service to handle various aspects of your online hereafter. DeadSocial, for example, enables you to pre-plan Facebook posts and tweets, and then posts them after you die.
If you’re handling someone else’s digital afterlife, you will have other considerations.
First, before announcing someone’s death online, call their close family and friends. A digital message is too shocking and impersonal for loved ones, including extended family who may see the person less frequently.
Next, don’t just log in to the person’s accounts; you could be breaking federal law. This is new legal territory, so the lawfulness of using a dead person’s account is still unclear. Read the terms of service for each social media platform and follow their designated processes to have each account memorialized or deleted.
With Facebook, for example, you will need to file online forms and submit the person’s death certificate.
You can then post an online message to make sure acquaintances and colleagues know of the person’s death. Stick to the facts, including funeral information, a link to the funeral home’s website, and the person’s last wishes. Be respectful, avoiding any statements that could incite drama.
Just like in “real” life, we all need to think about the end of our digital life. With a little advance planning, we can give our loved ones — and ourselves — some valuable peace-of-mind.
Anna and Ben’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.