When a Parent Dies, What Do You Do With Their Facebook Account?

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Sept. 16 2013 4:30 PM

A Digital Afterlife

You’ve thought about a funeral. You’ve thought about a will. But have you thought about what to do with the Facebook account?

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Screenshot courtesy of Facebook

Your mother has just entered hospice care, and she is declining quickly. Suddenly there are a million questions you are supposed to have answered in advance: Is there a will? What should we do with the house, the old china, the dog? Most of them involve money, beloved objects, or family history, but in the digital age, there are less tangible assets we almost never stop to think about. 

Once we might have treasured a loved one’s voice on a recording, or their image on an old video, but now their digital footprint is scattered. Like most Americans, our loved ones will most likely access more than two dozen password-protected sites on different computers and a smartphones, storing and sharing the vulnerable, mundane, and whimsical details of life while connecting with family and friends. The average American values his or her digital assets, such as photo libraries, personal communication, and entertainment files, at about $55,000, a value based on sentimental attachments as well as financial investments in music, application, and software purchases. As we plan for inheriting the house and family keepsakes, we must include our digital lives as well. And, as we help our parents plan, we need to remember to take care of our own digital presence.

Risk No. 1: Online Bills

When Cara, 22, graduated from college, she returned home to spend the summer with her mother. After her mother was hospitalized for a heart attack, Cara spent every moment she could at her mother’s bedside. When Cara returned home the night that her mother died, she found that the electricity was shut off. Apparently, she had been defaulting on online bills without realizing that there was no automatic payment system set up—or hard copies that would arrive each month as a reminder that payment was due. Although Cara was able to find all of her mother’s log-ins for bill payment on her computer, she didn't have all of the passwords to access the accounts. She tried to convert the online bills back to paper statements, a process that wasn’t easy or quick.

Having all log-ins and passwords for bill payment and other financial accounts in one secure place would have helped Cara, especially in a time when she was already emotionally and physically exhausted—and too late to ask her mother about anything. So how do you do that?

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If you ask five Internet security experts to list their favorite way to store passwords, you’re likely to come up with more than five answers. First, of course, is simply to keep a handwritten list, stored somewhere safe, or with someone you trust, and inform your next of kin where it is. For more security (and legibility), you could keep the list on your computer, and even password-protect it—so long as you can remember the password. Next, you can use one of the online password protection companies. C-Net provides comprehensive reviews of technology and lists more than 700 password managers. Among the most widely used are 1Password, which, for a fee, can help you not only create strong passwords, but also help you remember and, if necessary, restore them. Also popular are several free services, including PasswordSafe and LastPass, which similarly offer the ability to help you create and retrieve passwords.

Risk No. 2: Loss of Data

Judy and her father were always close personally and professionally. For years, Judy served as business manager for her father’s art gallery where they informally shared access to the gallery’s computer. Judy felt quietly confident that the electronically shared versions of her father’s drawings as well as his client contacts were safe and accessible. A year after her father’s sudden death, Judy realized that simple software updates can make previous versions of electronic treasures obsolete. Immediately, she set out to create hard copies of files she wanted to save and share. 

Going beyond password protection, you should also think about how you'll want your accounts managed once you're no longer able to do so.  In recent months, many new digital legacy planning tools have hit the market, designed to help us manage the ending of our online lives.  Google offers its Google Inactive Account Manager, which allows you to choose a trusted contact who will be notified by email and phone when your account has been inactive after a specified length of time and who can also be given access to the Google accounts you choose.  For all other accounts, you might want to look into a digital "vault," a service that allows you to assign beneficiaries for each of your online accounts and safely store other aspects of your online presence there For example, Legacy Locker explains that it allows account holders to save their online account information in a digital “safety deposit box,” and then specify “beneficiaries” to receive information about these accounts once Legacy Locker has verified the account holder’s death. They also offer the ability to deliver “Legacy Letters” to friends or family members. Similar services are provided by companies such as AssetLock, Cirrus Legacy, and SecureSafe. Note that while all of these sites can help you focus on digital asset preservation, their services may conflict with terms of service, click-through agreements, or relevant state and federal laws, and it is important to remember this throughout the planning process.

A foundational text is Evan Carroll and John Romano’s Your Digital Afterlifeand their website includes different strategies you can explore. Make sure that whatever tool you choose for digital estate planning is logical, easy to use, and most importantly, something you share with others.

Risk No. 3: Losing Control of Your Personal Legacy

Steve found out about his mother’s Facebook account several weeks after her death. He rarely uses social media, and he was surprised to learn his mother did. He waited several weeks before searching for her page, because he was fearful of what he might learn. For decades their relationship had been strained. When he was a child, she had left their family and moved several states away, leaving Steve to carry feelings of abandonment for most of his life. When she entered hospice care, he reluctantly agreed to move her into his home with his family and care for her in her final months. Small moments of reconciliation happened, but learning of the Facebook account made him realize there might be a lot he did not know.

Deep relief and quiet joy filled him as he read her public status updates expressing gratitude for her son’s sacrifices for her. Because he was unaware of his mother’s digital life while she was alive, Steve could not share in this powerful moment with her. On a positive note, Facebook enabled Steve to learn more about his mother’s private experiences, which will, in turn, shape the story he tells of her life to his children. But what if he had discovered hurtful or confusing information? She would not have been there to confront, explain, or repair the relationship. A painful gap would be left in her story—and in his life. Inspired by this experience, Steve and his wife have committed to inventorying their digital assets in order to spare their own children future anxiety. They are also painfully conscious of how others might react to what they post about their own lives and they understand that, if something happens to them, the person managing their estates will need access to the good, the bad, and the ugly in their online lives.

Thinking about illness, death and dying is something no one wants to do, and like Cara, Judy, and Steve, family caregivers will most likely be the ones to sort through a digital legacy with or without a conversation. Planning for our digital assets can be a gift to ourselves and to those who grieve us, reducing the burden they will carry as they sort through our past and tell our story. Far surpassing any monetary value, our digital assets hold tremendous sentimental value for those who will find comfort and meaning from our cloud-based legacy.

Naomi Cahn is a law professor at George Washington University. She is the co-author of Red Families v. Blue Families and is a member of the Homeward Bound project.

Amy Ziettlow is an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values where she currently leads a Lilly Endowed study of Gen X caregiving and grieving titled, Homeward Bound: Aging, Death, and Dying in an Era of High Family Fragmentation. She is ordained in the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and most recently served as COO of The Hospice of Baton Rouge.