It is always a tragedy when a loved one dies, of course, and the grieving family does not usually even want to get involved in the minutae of handling the wil and distriuting the property and estate of the lost family member. But if grandad’s old war medals and collection of pocket watches are dealt with my the local solicitor, what happens to is Facebook account where he has built up a family album of all the best photographs of his loved ones?
This is a problem that is growing in the modern world and can only get worse as the cloud becomes the standard place for all the digital data that we are coming to rely uopn more and more these days. Perhaps while all is well this is the very last thing anyone wants to think about, but it may be that after the death is far too late to have any hope of dealing with such issues. Put simply, the law has just ot kept up with the changing world in which it is expected to operate.
Even in America, the one country where you might expect the problem to have been dealt with already, there is only one state – Oklahoma – which has a law to make the process simpler than it currently is, although Senator John Wightmann in Nebraska is trying to drum up support for similar legislation there. “The law,” Wightmann says, “must keep up with technoogy. At this point, it has not.”
Most of the social networking sites do seem to have policies to deal with the death of one of their users, but it is not just these sites thatpresent problems. Even though they may have death policies, since each of the social sites seems to have a different policy then the bereaved are still left trying to navigate the often complex and almost always unhepful policies of the sites their loved one may have left with their demise.
For example, Twitter will simply delete a dead user’s account on receipt of a deah certificate – and original, mind you, and not a copy – which does little for the family members who might want to keep the jottings and thoughts of their family member as the spectre of their death loomed ever larger. By contrast, Facebook will let family members convert a dead person’s site into a memorial page which let’s people write on the lost member’s wall… and as we know in the UK also lets the small-minded and simply insulting write disgusting comments as well. Neither of them will under any circumstances hand over the login or password details, which means that beloved family album of photographs grandad had built up is simply out of reach.
At this point, it is only fair to admit that your writer has a certain amount of personal interest in all this, having lost a family member just over a year ago. While he had no Twitter or Facebeook account which fortunately saved us the issues of dealing with their peculiarities he did, of course, have others such as an email account which could have been very important indeed. Should one have been a Gmail acount, then to get access to it Google require a death certificate from the next of kin – no other family member being acceptable in any way – and also clear proof of a previous email conversation between the deceased and the next of kin. Now, just ask yourselves how often you send an email to a family member you might see every other day or week. Unless the next of kin and the dead person did email each other, you simply cannot get access to their Gmail account.
If all of this seems bad, the position with potentially valuable assets owned by the deceased family member is even worse. Unless there is a specific clause, specifically written into a formal will then the chances are that you simply cannot get access to the valuable assets at all. You might, if you are lucky, get the cash balance of a PayPal account provided you are the executor of the will but other assets such as the music files or movie collections on an iTunes account will simply be lost. Though we have tried to find out, the situation with cash value outstanding in an Amazon Mechanical Turk account seems to be confusing in the extreme and may or may not be honoured.
The difficulties of getting hold of Microsoft to ask what might happen to data on their Live accounts, including email and the cloud-based digital data, were such that we simply cannot report here how to get hold of them at all. Strange as it may seem, n this age of increasingly digital assets and information there simply is no standard, simple or even legally enforcable way to manage such assets in the case of a death.
Surely this is one area in desperate need of clarification and legal support for the bereaved and it can only become more and more important as time goes on. In fact, when a solicitor was approached about this subject, the best advise that could be offered was for the details of the login, password and any ther details of such accounts to be written into the will so that the family could first go into each such account to get access to and – if possible – remove those assets before informing the company of the death of the member. To do that, of course, is hardly the best alternative and may even be illegal in some cases but as things stand at the moment it appears to be the best solution available.
A legal consensus is obviously needed urgently to resolve such problems but even with such urgency progress with Wightmann’s bill is very slow and no other action seems to be in motion anywhere else. It is not uncommon for the law to lag behind the reality of the world in which it operates but it seems that in this particular case the law is not just lagging but completely useless.
- Dealing with death in a digital world (newscientist.com)
- Facebook Account To Become Digital Estate (itproportal.com)
- What Do you Say to the Bereaved? (heartandsoulperspectives.wordpress.com)
- How to Write a Will (answers.com)
- Updated: What happens to your web stuff when you die? (techradar.com)
- “I Wanna Live Forever,” or How We Die on Social Networks (readwriteweb.com)