The Law and Business of Social Media
March 10, 2015 - Terms of Use

Who Will Update My Status When I’m Dead?: The Biggest Social Media Platforms’ Policies on Deceased-User Accounts

It’s often said that, when it comes to regulating technology, U.S. laws aren’t up to speed. That includes U.S. trusts and estates laws, which, in many cases, do not say much about what happens to your digital assets after you die.

Unless you or your trustee lives in one of the few states that, like Delaware, has a law that allows your executor to access your online accounts, your loved ones may have to follow the procedures set forth in social media platforms’ terms of use if they want to access your account after your death. (Alternatively, a deceased social-media-account holder’s survivors could seek a court order granting them access to your social media accounts, but it’s a lengthy and not-always-successful process.)

The fluid nature of the major social media platforms’ approach to handling deceased users’ accounts is illustrated by Facebook, which recently changed its policy to afford users more post-mortem control over their pages. The recent press coverage of Facebook’s policy piqued our curiosity regarding how the major social media platforms address this issue. Below we summarize Facebook’s, Twitter’s, Instagram’s, Pinterest’s, LinkedIn’s and Google’s (including Google companies YouTube’s and Blogger’s) policies regarding management of deceased users’ accounts.

Facebook: Allows users, while they’re alive, to designate a “legacy contact,” or elect to have the account deleted after they’ve died

Facebook recently changed its terms of service to allow the platform’s U.S. users to elect to have their accounts permanently deleted after they die, or to select a “legacy contact“— a family member or friend to whom Facebook will accord limited management of the user’s Facebook account after the user dies. Once a friend of the deceased user completes an online form notifying Facebook of the user’s death, Facebook will add the tagline “Remembering” over the user’s name and notify the legacy contact. The legacy contact may then: (1) download the photos and other information that the deceased shared on Facebook (if the deceased indicated that he or she would like to give the legacy contact that permission); (2) “write a post to display at the top of the memorialized Timeline (for example, to announce a memorial service or share a special message)”; (3) update the profile photo and cover photo; and (4) accept new friend requests on the deceased’s behalf.

The legacy contact will not be able to access the deceased’s private messages or login as the deceased.

Step-by-step instructions on how to designate a Facebook legacy contact are available here.

Twitter: Offers only possible account deletion at the request of the deceased’s lawful representative or immediate family member

Twitter’s terms of use specifically provide that the company is “unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.” Twitter will, however, “work with a person authorized to act on the behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.”

To fulfill this request, the company requires significant proof of the requester’s relationship with the deceased, including a death certificate.

Instagram: Offers to memorialize accounts upon proof of death; will only remove an account at a family member’s request

Instagram’s policy says that the company will heed a request to memorialize a deceased person’s account from anyone who provides proof of the death, such as a link to an obituary or a news article. The company will not provide anyone with login information for memorialized accounts. For Instagram to remove a deceased person’s account, an immediate family member must make the request. Instagram’s policy requires that removal requesters prove their status as a member of the deceased’s immediate family by providing documents such as the deceased’s birth or death certificates, or “proof of authority under local law that you are the lawful representative of the deceased person, or his/her estate.”

Pinterest: Offers only account deletion at the request of a family member

Pinterest’s terms of use also state that, in the interest of the platform’s users’ privacy, the company won’t give out login information, but will “deactivate a deceased person’s account if a family member gets in touch with us.” True to Pinterest’s homey image, the company will accept less formal documentation of the requester’s relationship with the deceased, including a “family tree.”

Of the terms of use that we examined, Pinterest’s were the only ones to offer condolences, stating, “We’re so very sorry to hear about the loss of your loved one.”

LinkedIn: Offers only account deletion at the request of anyone with a relationship to the deceased and a link to the deceased’s obituary

LinkedIn’s terms of use state that the company will close the account and remove the profile of “a colleague, classmate, or loved one who has passed away” if the requester provides certain basic information and a link to the deceased’s obituary.

Google+, YouTube, Blogger: Allows a user, while he or she is alive, to designate up to 10 people with whom Google will share the user’s data after the user has died

In keeping with its reputation as an extremely progressive company, Google since 2013 has allowed its social media platforms’ users a good measure of post-mortem control over their digital assets. Under Google’s terms of use, which have been in place for the last couple of years, a user of  +1s, Blogger, Contacts and Circles, Drive, Gmail, Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams, Picasa Web Albums, Google Voice and YouTube may select a time period of account inactivity—three, six, nine or 12 months—after which Google will fulfill the user’s wishes for the post-mortem disposition of his or her account (after first warning the user by sending a text message to his or her cellphone and an email to a secondary address that the user provided). At that point, Google will notify “up to 10 trusted friends” that the user’s account is inactive, and—if the user so chooses—share his or her data with all or some of those people.

Users can also elect to have Google delete their accounts or set up an auto-response to all incoming messages once a user’s account becomes inactive.

To instruct Google on what you’d like the company to do with your Google accounts and the data in them after you’ve died, go to the Account Settings page of the Google platform that you use, scroll down to the Account Tools subheading, and click on Inactive Account Manager.