Digital Life After Death

In the Wall Street Journal today, there was a fascinating (and saddening) article about a 16 year old girl that passed away earlier this year. Her family has been trying to gain access to her digital life (facebook, twitter, email, etc.):

But using Alison’s passwords violated some of those websites’ terms of service, and possibly the law. None of the services allow the Atkins family—or any others—to retrieve the passwords of the deceased. Their argument is that it would violate Alison’s privacy.

Since then, Ms. Atkins’s attempts to recover Alison’s online life have begun falling apart. The websites that previously logged in automatically on Alison’s laptop began locking out Ms. Atkins as part of their standard security procedures. Her attempts to guess or reset her sister’s passwords backfired. Some of the accounts have been shutting themselves down.
On Nov. 21, Alison disappeared from Facebook, where her family used her account to communicate and share memories with more than 500 friends. “We have already lost Alison,” says Ms. Atkins. Now the family says it fears losing another part of her.

The digital era adds a new complexity to the human test of dealing with death. Loved ones once may have memorialized the departed with private rituals and a notice in the newspaper. Today, as family and friends gather publicly to write and share photos online, the obituary may never be complete.
This is an interesting topic to keep in mind when I study Estates & Trusts next year. My initial thoughts are that you could designate access to your online social media through a will, but then again, allowing anyone to access your social media profiles violates the terms of service of the various companies.

Additionally, most young adults do not have a will. And if they did, would a young adult or teenager really want their family to access all of their past social media history?

Also, would it be best to leave social media profiles online indefinitely or to close them down at time of death? This is something to think about and perhaps could even lead to the creation of “social media wills.” Just like you designate a beneficiary for life insurance, perhaps social media should start allowing you to designate what happens to your profile when presented with a death certificate.

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About Justin Zatkoff

Justin Zatkoff is a candidate for Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in Detroit, Michigan, having an expected graduation date of May 2014. In his spare time, Mr. Zatkoff enjoys a healthy way of life, which includes participating in triathlons and marathons. He recently completed Ironman Mont-Tremblant, finishing in just under 15 hours.
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