Traditionally, California estate planning addresses distribution of real and tangible personal property. But in the Internet age, intangible personal assets such as social media accounts are an essential part of many estates. Google, Facebook and Twitter may all contain personal data that you might want to dispose of in a particular manner after your death. Media companies have implemented different policies to deal with deceased users, and it’s critical to understand these protocols as part of your own “digital” estate planning.
Mountain View-based Google is one of the world’s most popular online service providers. Millions of people use Google Mail, the Google + social network and the storage service Google Drive. Recently, Google announced the addition of an “Inactive Account Manager” feature that allows a user to give the company specific instructions on how to handle any personal data stored on the company’s servers.
The Interactive Account Manager lets you set a “timeout period” of between three, six, nine or twelve months. If there is no activity under the user’s login for any Google service before the timeout period expires, the Manager will proceed to follow additional instructions. This includes notifying a “trusted contact” that your account is inactive. Google allows you to specify what types of data-email, videos posted to YouTube, etc.-can be downloaded by this contact. You may also instruct Google to delete all of your data once the timeout period elapses.
Menlo Park-based Facebook does not provide login information to a deceased person’s next-of-kin. Instead, the company’s policy is to “memorialize” the decedent’s account. A family member or friend may inform Facebook of the person’s death and provide appropriate proof, such as a link to an obituary or news article, after which the account will be frozen and access to certain information restricted.
In order to delete a deceased person’s account, the executor of the estate or an immediate family member-a parent, spouse, sibling or child-must provide verification of the death to Facebook. This includes a copy of the deceased person’s death (or birth) certificate or, in the case of an executor, a copy of the testamentary letters from the probate court authorizing that person to act on behalf of the deceased.
Like Facebook, San Francisco-based Twitter will not provide any account access to an estate or family member of a deceased user. Twitter will deactivate an account if it receives documentation of the user’s identity and death. Company policy mandates a requester provide the decedent’s username and death certificate along with a copy of the requester’s government-issued identification.
The requester must also present a signed statement that provides contact information along with details of his or her relationship to the deceased user, a copy of any obituary or death notice, and “a brief description” connecting the Twitter account in question to the deceased. This is important because many Twitter accounts are aliases or contain different names than what might appear on a person’s birth certificate or government ID. Also keep in mind, a person may have more than one Twitter account.
Taking Digital Inventory
The above only summarizes policies for three of the most popular online services. If you rely on other email and social media providers, it’s important to research their individual policies regarding next-of-kin access. As part of your estate planning, it’s also advisable to take inventory of your digital accounts and passwords. You may wish to include specific instructions regarding access and data retention in your will, trust or other estate planning documents. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady at 1-858-618-5510.