When people die, they leave all kinds of mementoes. For most of us, it's manageable, if not emotionally trying, to go through their photos, old letters and other possessions and decide what goes to charity, what gets inherited and what gets tossed.
These days, that process is complicated by the existence of Facebook and Google+ pages, which compile many possessions in a digital format. So far, laws cover how loved ones can manage the remaining physical objects left behind after a death. But what of the virtual ones?
Several states are trying to deal with that question now. Oklahoma was the first. That state's law allows friends and relatives — and most importantly, the executor of an estate — to get control of Facebook accounts (provided the deceased lived in the state). Nebraska is proposing a similar measure, and there is some preliminary work on it being done in Oregon. In New York there is a proposal to name a "digital executor" before you die.
Connecticut, Rhode Island and Indiana have laws that cover email and electronic files, but it's far from clear whether those laws cover Facebok as well.
Facebook itself has a policy that says it will put accounts in a kind of "memorial mode" when someone dies. That basically stops the profile from appearing in suggestion pages and puts the privacy setting to "Friends Only." But the company says it doesn't give out login information to anyone. In at least one case, the mother of a young man who died in an accident was unable to access the page. Comments on one of Facebook's blogs show this is an ongoing issue for others.
People aren't without options. There are a number of applications that allow a person to manage his or her digital afterlife. The site, If I die, for example, offers a way for three people to confirm that the owner of the Facebook page is in fact dead and access the page. Entrustet, Legacy Locker and SecureSafe offer options for dealing with your inevitable final status update. I-Tomb offers what it calls a "virtual cemetery."
So why didn't anyone think of this before? One factor — besides the newness of social media generally — is that it's still the province of the (relatively) young. Only a small number of Facebook users, about 6 percent, are over 65. The average age of people on Facebook is 38, according to a study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. The numbers aren't much different for other sites, such as Bebo (which skews a bit younger).
What that means is that generally the people using the site aren't thinking about wills yet. But that might well change as the generation that's in their prime now gets older and death becomes a bit more real. (There's an old joke that you know you're getting older when you start scanning obituaries for friends' names.)
That said, there is still likely to be legal wrangling over digital assets, especially if they contain something of monetary value. For example, the Facebook page of a model who has died could feature photographs that, strictly speaking, belong to the photographer who took them or could be considered business assets. The family of the deceased may choose to pursue ownership of the photos or may just want to take the page down. The new laws will hopefully clarify the issue.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons