Facebook Takes a Step Forward for Digital Afterlife

Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP

Late last week Facebook released several new features that will aid in the management of a user’s account after the user’s death. While there has been little notification of these features on Facebook itself, the new features have been widely publicized in mainstream media. The new features allow a user to make decisions regarding how the account will be managed after their death. As with many of the options for maintaining or cleaning up your online presence after your death, Facebook users must take steps during their lifetime in order to take advantage of these new features.

Legacy Contact

The primary announcement from Facebook indicates that a user can now create a ‘legacy contact’ for their account. The legacy contact feature allows a Facebook user to appoint someone to manage their account once the user has died. According to the instructions on Facebook, the legacy contact will be able to post items to the deceased’s timeline, respond to new friend requests and update the deceased’s profile picture.

The procedure for naming a legacy contact is fairly simple and takes only a few minutes to complete. The new feature is listed as the last option under a user’s security settings in their profile. The choice of a user’s legacy contact must come from the user’s current group of Facebook friends. Therefore, a user cannot name a contact that does not use Facebook or someone who is not currently a Facebook friend.

Once a user has appointed a legacy contact, the user has the option to send a message to the legacy contact to notify them that they were appointed as the legacy contact. Facebook has pre-populated a notification message that can be changed by the user. A user can also easily remove one appointed legacy contact and add another.

Data Archive Permission

I often encourage Facebook users to backup their Facebook accounts. Many Facebook users I talk to do not realize there is an option to download all of their Facebook data. Prior to the recent announcement from Facebook, a download of all of your Facebook data was the only way to ensure that the photos, messages, and other Facebook items would be saved for your family. If you are interested in downloading a current copy of your Facebook account, more information can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/help/131112897028467

In addition to naming a legacy contact, a user can now give their legacy contact permission to download a copy of the user’s data archive. The data archive includes information that is available on a user’s Facebook page as well as messages and usage data, such as the ads a user has clicked on. In the same location that a user names a legacy contact there is a checkbox that allows a user to give the legacy contact permission to download the items that the user has shared. The instructions note that a legacy contact will not have access to a user’s security settings and they will not be able to download messages as part of the data archive. Those items are only available to the original user. If a user leaves the box unchecked, then permission is not granted and the legacy contact will not be able to download the data archive.

Account Memorialization or Deletion

Prior to the recent announcement Facebook offered two options for a deceased user’s account. The account could be memorialized or deleted entirely. Despite these options it was not the account user that made the decision regarding their account but rather the user’s loved ones after the death of the user. It was also unclear as to the outcome if one party requested memorialization and another requested deletion. In connection with the recent announcement and the release of the option for a legacy contact, Facebook has now placed this decision back in the hands of the account user. However, the user must take an active step during life to make a decision regarding their account. If the user does not take the appropriate steps to make a decision then the prior procedures will still apply.

In the event that a user does not name a legacy contact, a Facebook friend may submit a request to Facebook requesting that the deceased user’s account be memorialized. The Memorialization Request form requires the name of the person who died and their date of death or an approximate date of death. Facebook also asks for proof of the death, but this information is optional for the memorialization request.

In addition to allowing the legacy contact to manage a memorialized account, Facebook has redesigned the layout of such an account.  Facebook will place the word ‘Remembering’ next to the name of memorialized person’s account to make it clear that they have died and that Facebook has been notified. The legacy contact also has the ability to pin a post to the top of the timeline to share information regarding the deceased.

The alternative to account memorialization is account deletion. Again, prior to the recent announcement this option was only offered to the user’s loved ones. The form for account deletion is called a “Special Request for Deceased Peron’s Account.” Unlike the memorialization request, this form does not appear to require that the person making the request be a Facebook user. This form also asks for more information to identify both the deceased person’s account and the identity of the person making the request. It also requires verification that the person making the request is an immediate family member of the deceased.

With the recent changes, the account user can now make the decision of whether they would like their account memorialized or deleted at their death. If the user chooses to name a legacy contact, the account will be memorialized at the user’s death and the legacy contact will have the limited access to manage the account. If the user wishes to have the account deleted at their death, they select an option in the security settings below the legacy contact information to request account deletion. Once a user checks the box requesting deletion a warning appears and reinforces that the account will be deleted as soon as someone notifies Facebook that the user has died.

Cautions Regarding the New Features

There are several possible issues with the new features. First, a user cannot name more than one legacy contact at a time or name a successor if the first choice predeceases the user. Second, there is no indication of how these accounts will managed once the legacy contacts start to die themselves. For example, if my mom appoints me as her legacy contact I will have access to her account at her death. If I then appoint my husband as the legacy contact for my account, when I die, will my husband have control over both mine and my mother’s account, or just my account? Or will a legacy contact have the ability to appoint a successor legacy contact? Third, Facebook has provided no clarification regarding conflicting requests from friends and family members for those users that do not appoint a legacy contact.

Facebook may be working through these questions, but remember that they also have the ability to delete or change these features at any time. Despite these concerns, Facebook appears to have taken a step in the right direction by allowing their users to make the necessary decisions about their accounts and how they should be handled at the user’s death.



DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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