There is a reason people make jokes about having someone clear their browser history when they die. Nobody wants their friends and family to know just exactly how much time they have wasted watching cat videos on YouTube, or what other embarrassing content they looked at online. Despite joking about it, however, few people have made plans about what should be done with their digital estate after they die.
Determining who has control over the digital assets left behind after someone dies is a growing problem. For example, there was a well-publicized case from Canada earlier this year where Apple was asking a widow to get a court order if she wanted access to the apps she and her late husband had downloaded on to their shared iPad. The husband was the one who had set up the account, so Apple considered everything attached to the account to be his rather than something that was shared. The company only eased up on the widow after the case started getting media attention.
In response to situations like this, Virginia became one of the first states to pass a law directly addressing what happens to digital assets after death. The Privacy Expectation Afterlife and Choices Act gives people an expectation of privacy in their online accounts and communications, but it allows whoever is overseeing a deceased person’s estate to get information about what accounts are out there, and thus might need to be shut down.
The law does not control all online accounts though. Companies can still put whatever they want in their user agreements. In fact, many online companies have put policies in place that dictate what will happen to an account after the user dies.
For example, Apple’s terms of service agreement terminates all rights at the time of death, meaning apps, music, films, and other files aren’t transferrable to a new user. If more than one person is using an Apple ID, both people need to know the password and have access to the associated email address and credit card in order to keep using it.
Some companies also allow users to choose what will happen to their account after they die.
Facebook, for example, allows users to delegate the power to shut down their account or turn it into a memorial page to a friend or family member. If the user did not set their after-death preferences, their ones can fill out a form requesting that a deceased user’s account be deactivated.
Google allows users to designate an “inactive account manager” to take possession of the user’s digital assets after death. There is also a form an estate administrator can fill out to request data (or funds, if applicable) from the account of someone who died without designating an inactive account manager. If you have thoughts about what you want to happen to your online accounts after your death, you should look into what options the services you are using provide. You should also consider adding a section to your estate plan that lists your various accounts and tells your estate administrator what you would like to happen to them.