Facebook and other social media sites have always had to deal with respecting the privacy of the deceased and the concerns of grieving friends and family. Previously, Facebook automatically froze the accounts of members if it learned a member had died, angering some heirs who wanted to edit the deceased’s online presence. Now Facebook is giving you a say in what happens to your Facebook account when you die.
Brook Davidson is an attorney in Stewart Melvin & Frost’s probate litigation practice. She joins us today to talk about these new developments with Facebook. Stewart Melvin & Frost is one of Northeast Georgia’s largest and fastest growing law firms and is widely respected as an “Uncommon Practice” – the firm features an experienced team of attorneys, each of whom is recognized as an expert in highly specialized areas of the law.
Question: What’s new with Facebook?
Brook: Facebook has begun to allow its members to designate someone Facebook is calling a “legacy contact” to manage parts of their accounts posthumously. Members can also choose to have their presence deleted entirely. Asking us to make plans for a digital afterlife may sound morbid, but it can bring clarity to an issue that’s both legally and emotionally challenging.
Question: Have any other social media or Internet sites established anything like the legacy contact?
Brook: Yes. Google was the first. In 2013, it established a way to allow users to select digital heirs for their Gmail, cloud storage and other services. Google called the person designated to take over the account “inactive account managers.”
Question: What’s the point of maintaining a social network after death?
Brook: Facebook legacy contacts will be able to manage accounts in a way that can turn the deceased person’s Facebook page into a kind of digital gravestone. Legacy contacts can write a post to display at the top of their friend’s memorialized profile page, change the friend’s profile picture, and even respond to new friend requests on behalf of the deceased. If they’re granted prior permission, legacy contacts can also download an archive of posts and photos from the deceased, but not the contents of his or her private messages.
Question: Do you have to designate a legacy contact?
Brook: All of this is optional. If you do nothing, when Facebook finds out you’ve passed, it will simply freeze your account and leave posts and pictures at the privacy settings you determined, a process it calls memorialization.
Facebook says it has done this to hundreds of thousands of accounts to date.
Being a legacy contact is different from simply logging into the account of the deceased, and there are important things legacy contacts can’t alter. They can’t edit what the deceased has already posted, or what his or her friends post on the page. If you chose to post a photo while you are living that looks embarrassing when you are gone, your legacy contact can’t do anything about it. A legacy contact also can’t decide to delete a whole account.
Question: With Facebook’s new policy, is there anything we need know?
Brook: There’s more fine print worth paying attention to: You can select only one person—and no backup—so spouses and partners who often travel together may face a difficult choice about whether to designate each other. Facebook is continuing to think about how it might allow for contingent legacy contacts.
Facebook members can change their legacy contact selection at any time, but once they have died, a legacy contact can’t pass along the responsibility to someone else.If you don’t choose a legacy contact on Facebook but name a digital heir in a legal will, Facebook will designate that person.
It’s exhausting to think that Facebook has become so interwoven into our lives that we not only have to think about setting our birthdays, relationships and jobs in stone there, but now also our deaths. Still, Facebook’s new service empowers people to make choices about their data while they are living, and for many, that’s a relief.