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Social media accounts may be in purgatory without estate planning

Some people say they want to be immortal. But even they may not want the immortality that lingers in cyberspace. Accounts on websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube may outlive the person who creates them. The ownership of digital assets has become an important topic in estate planning.

With many types of property such as insurance policies, houses and automobiles, there is a standard procedure for allowing that property to pass legally from one person to another at death. But because digital assets are relatively new, most companies who provide them did not anticipate familial disputes or questions from surviving loved ones about whether to delete the accounts of a deceased person or keep them active.

Generally, the creator owns the page and no one else has the right to modify it or delete it without the permission of the creator. Once the creator is no longer able to make these decisions, the conundrum begins.

Cases have recently been reported of survivors who have petitioned for access to an account after the loss of a loved one.  And while the process still isn’t simple, the sites are paying attention and have built strategies. With proof of death, such as an obituary or death certificate, Twitter will deactivate an account. Facebook makes forms available on its site. Google has an “inactive account manager” that allows users to make decisions before they die.

Even with these companies making strides in the right direction, the responsibility still lies with the account owner or his or her survivors. A solid course of action may be to keep one’s usernames and passwords filed with other estate planning documents with instructions regarding each account; it may also be wise to create a power of attorney giving someone else access to the accounts. A New York estate planning attorney with knowledge of digital asset strategies can help individuals determine best options for their digital estates.

Source: Kansas City Star, “People who die can be virtually immortal in social media,” Rick Montgomery, March 15, 2014

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