Life After Death

27 October 2015

We are increasingly living more of our lives online. Vast amounts of our personal information, stored in email and social media accounts, will exist long after our deaths. Recent legal cases demonstrate that if you want to take control of what will happen to this information you will need to act now. Taking control of your digital afterlife could make life easier for the loved ones you leave behind.

Most terms of service agreements and privacy policies governing access to email and social media accounts expire when the user dies. This has meant accessing a deceased person’s online accounts has traditionally been difficult.

In 2012 Facebook successfully fought a subpoena brought by the family of a woman who died in Greater Manchester. Although a federal judge in California rejected the family’s attempt to gain access to the dead woman’s account there was the possibility that Facebook may have made its own conclusion and provided the requested materials voluntarily. In another example in 2012 Facebook allowed a couple from Virginia, U.S.A., to have limited access to information from the account of their 15 year old son who had committed suicide.

A controversial new law in the U.S.A., the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA), enacted in Delaware but with other states set to follow, makes it easier for estate executors to access digital data of a deceased account holder. Executors can now access online accounts without a court order, something which typically was expensive, time consuming and not always successful.

Should our email and social media accounts be treated in the same fashion as the physical belongings we leave behind though? Over our lifetime we are set to create our own vast archive of digital communications. Each communication is often shared with a private, specific audience, revealing different aspects of our character and stored in a password protected account. These archives, including photos and videos, will leave behind a more detailed picture of the private individual than has ever been the case before.

It is not only the deceased’s private life that might be opened up to others. The privacy of those communicated with, individuals who may still be alive, is also challenged by the new law.

There are practical steps you can take:

  • Inform your next of kin or your executors of your accounts. Do not provide your login details in your Will as not only are your passwords likely to change but this may be a breach of your online accounts’ terms and conditions. Moreover, your Will may itself become a public document.
  • Some online services have been designed to store all your online account login details so that they can be disclosed to nominated individuals in the case of your death. You will need to check that this complies with each of your online accounts’ terms and conditions and for obvious security reasons that the service is provided by a reputable provider.
  • Google’s Inactive Account Manager allows you to nominate trusted contacts to receive data from a specified account, such as Gmail or YouTube, after a chosen period of time when the account has been inactive. You also have the option of having your data deleted entirely.
  • Facebook’s Digital Legacy Contact similarly allows you to nominate someone to look after your account when you die. Your account will be “memorialised” and your nominated person will not gain full access to your account and so, for example, will not be able to read your messages.

Individuals would be wise to take steps now to take control of their digital afterlives. Failure to do so could leave them turning in their grave.

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About the Author

Nick Brough


Originally a criminal defence solicitor, Nick’s skills are invaluable in the sensitive and unpredictable situations where clients face reputational and privacy threats.

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