Online Life After Death
Jean Gordon Carter

Life after death exists—online. Your social media accounts, of all types, will survive your death, at least for a while, but their eventual lives may be very different from what you would choose. The afterlife of these accounts depends on an uncertain blend of contract terms, state law, maybe federal law, your will, the knowledge of your heirs and other factors. Everyone with an active life online needs to consider these factors and take control to assure the best outcome for their digital afterlife. Doing so can save your family from additional emotional hurt and may save money for your estate.Your life online began with a simple click when you agreed to contract terms to set up your digital account. You probably did not read those terms, but they may dictate what happens to the account when you die. For example, your email account may say that the provider deletes all emails upon notice of your death. That might be what you want, for privacy reasons, or it might deprive your family of valuable memories of you. And even before that step, how does the provider learn you are dead? Who should officially notify the social media account provider of your death and tell them what to do with your account?

You need to help with the first step by preparing an inventory for your family describing what digital accounts and assets, including social media accounts, you have. In that inventory, list passwords so your family can access the accounts and handle them appropriately. Further, in that inventory, describe your wishes for those accounts: preserve, delete, secure the value or whatever else is appropriate. Once the inventory is prepared, keep it current. This inventory will be the lifeline, literally, for your digital assets after your death. And, yes, there are online services that can help.

While the inventory of digital assets is critical, you also need the right person to access those accounts and carry out your wishes. That person could be your legal executor named in your will or may be someone more familiar with digital assets whom you designate to help your executor and family handle those accounts. The key is picking someone with the knowledge and willingness to carry out your wishes.Ideally, your will should give power to your executor or others to handle your digital life. While the current law concerning those assets is uncertain, express powers in a will or similar document may go a long way towards helping your executor act on your behalf. That power may also allow your legal executor to hire knowledgeable help to handle your accounts. Also under federal and other laws, unauthorized access to someone’s account may be a crime—hacking, for example—so you want your representatives authorized to access your accounts and handle them for you.

While your own will and the account contract terms for accounts provide a basic framework for what will happen after your death, the states are trying to help. Currently Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island have laws dealing with digital life after death. The earliest of these laws deal with email, but later ones have expanded the scope to other digital items. These laws provide some access to the accounts for legal representatives and try to direct the account manager to cooperate with the representative such as providing copies of items or not deleting the account. Several states (or lawyer committees in states) are actively considering further legislation to help executors and families deal with digital assets after death. The Uniform Law Commission is also working on model legislation. While the intersection of these state laws with the original contract terms remains uncertain, these state laws likely will help deal with these accounts after death.

And maybe you don’t care what happens to your digital life after your death—after all, you will never know. But you probably care very much about your digital assets and social media accounts if you are unable to access them for an extended period due to an accident or travel. Appointing someone to act online for you, through a proper power of attorney, may give you this control over accounts when you cannot access them.

The key to digital life after death, or even after incapacity, is planning. Think about your digital life and what you want to happen to each part of it when you can’t handle it yourself. Decide who should handle it for you. And then give them the roadmap to your digital life and the legal power to act for you. Doing so will help your digital life rest in peace.

Jean Gordon Carter is a partner in the Raleigh office of Hunton & Williams LLP, where her practice focuses primarily on tax and estates matters. Ms. Gordon Carter is also a CPA.