The internet should give us all pause for thought, particularly in the context of estate planning. In preparing a will, we focus on home, bank accounts and a lifetime of accumulated tangible treasures that we wish to pass on to loved ones. And we select trusted friends or family members to take responsibility for the task of seeing these things make it into the right hands.
Social networking accounts, and the data they store, are rarely contemplated in this context. For those of us less tech-savvy than the rest, the question may well be, does it matter? The answer must be a resounding YES, as the information that has the potential to be lost can be irreplaceable. Many people use their Facebook or Google account as a personal databank, or store all of their pictures, music, videos and other digital content in “the cloud”. While there is some variation amongst social networking providers as to what happens to the account on the death of the account holder, one thing seems to be certain: access by next of kin to information stored in the account will be limited at best. Some sites will delete data stored in an account after a period of inactivity, while others allow an account holder to nominate a person to “inherit” the content in certain proscribed circumstances. Others, still, like Facebook, “memorialize” an account, which means the profile remains in existence forever, access being restricted to friends only. In part, the lack of consistency in approach with regards to the death of account holders is the result of privacy and probate laws not keeping pace with the reality of the internet, as well as a failure to properly define “digital assets”. As well, establishing policies to deal with the death of account holders is neither sexy nor fun.